Try to put Little Shop of Horrors out of your mind for a minute.

Italian researchers have developed a soft robot that can curl, climb, and wrap itself around objects. It’s the product of an EU-funded project led by one of the most influential women in the field of robotics, Dr. Barbara Mazzoli from the IIT-Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia. A technical description of the robot’s mechanics appeared this week in the journal Nature Communications.

The robot is inspired by the way plants interact with their environments and, specifically, seek out water. According to a press release from the university:

“The researchers studied the natural mechanisms by which plants exploit water transport inside their cells, tissues and organs to move, and then they replicated it in an artificial tendril. The hydraulic principle is called ‘osmosis’ and is based on the presence of small particles in the cytosol, the intracellular plant fluid.”

Researchers used a mathematical model to estimate what size the robot should be in order to perform its curling and winding movements efficiently. The machine is made of a flexible PET tube that contains a liquid with electrically charged particles. These ions are driven into motion by a 1.3 Volt battery.

Take a look at the little guy at work here.

By using a common battery and flexible materials, the researchers suggest that these soft robots can easily adapt to their environments and interact with people and things.

Of course, we have robots that can open doors, be pushed over by humans and get back up, traverse rough terrain, jump, and climb. If robots that can reach you wherever you are fuel your nightmares, ones that can wrap themselves around you probably aren’t going to put your mind at ease.

But rest assured, these robots are not designed to strangle you to death (although, to be fair, lots of vines cause damage in this way). Instead, according to the researchers, “possible applications will range from wearable technologies to the development of flexible robotic arms for exploration.”

They believe that the robots can morph into a shape that would even allow them to serve as soft braces for limb injuries.

Granted, the thought of a robotic tendril will freak some people out, but that’s only if they haven’t been paying attention to much creepier robots.

Avatar for Jessica Baron, PhD

Jessica Baron, PhD

I am a technology writer and tech ethics consultant whose work has appeared in international news and trade outlets. I have a PhD in History and Philosophy of Science and write about everything from future military weapons to advances in medicine.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *