Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Bold and Twisted Ringbots that Roll, Spin & Orbit Like Moon

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Imagine robots that can roll like tires, spin like tops, and even orbit a central point like the moon without human or computer control. Sounds like science fiction, right? But North Carolina State University researchers with their innovative “twisted ringbots,” have made this a reality. A new class of soft robots that promise to revolutionize exploration and map-making in unknown environments.

Ribbon Twists, Robot Rolls

These ring-shaped bots, made of ribbon-like liquid crystal elastomers, are twisted like rotini noodles and joined at the ends. When placed on a surface warmer than the air (around 131 degrees Fahrenheit), the portion touching the surface contracts, causing the robot to roll forward. The warmer the surface, the faster it moves.

“It’s like a microscopic engine built into the material itself,” explains Jie Yin, lead author of the study and an associate professor at NC State.

But the fun doesn’t stop there. The twisted design also makes the ringbot spin on its axis like a record, and as it rolls, it naturally travels in an orbital path around a central point. This unique combination of movements allows the robot to navigate complex spaces without any external input.

Boundary Breakers

Hitting a wall or another obstacle? No problem! These twisted ringbots adjust their path and continue their orbital exploration. This makes it ideal for mapping unfamiliar territories, whether a simple box or a complicated cave.

Fine-Tuning the Twisted Ringbots

The beauty of these robots lies in their “physical intelligence.” Their behaviour is determined by their design, not by pre-programmed commands. Researchers can change their twists, ribbon width, and number of turns to control their speed, direction, and even the complexity of their orbital paths.

Proof of the Twist

In lab tests, the twisted ringbots successfully navigated various confined spaces, accurately mapping their outlines. The researchers even mapped complex, irregular shapes by introducing multiple robots with different rotation directions.

“Essentially, the more robots you have, the more detailed your map becomes,” says Fangjie Qi, the study’s first author and a Ph.D. student at NC State.

Beyond the Lab

Soft robotics is an expanding field with immense potential. The twisted ringbots are:

  • A significant leap forward.
  • It offers exciting possibilities for exploration and search and rescue operations.
  • Even environmental monitoring in dangerous or remote areas.

A Future of Twisting and Turning

“This is just the beginning,” says Yin. “We’re constantly exploring new ways to control and utilize these robots, pushing the boundaries of what’s possible with soft robotics.”

With their ability to roll, spin, and orbit, these tiny twisted ringbots are paving the way for a future of autonomous exploration and map-making, one twist at a time.

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