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Twisted soft robots navigate mazes

Swatches | October 1, 2022 | By:

Researchers from North Carolina State University (NC State) and the University of Pennsylvania have developed soft robots that can navigate complex environments such as mazes without input from humans or computer software.

“These soft robots demonstrate ‘physical intelligence,’ meaning that structural design and smart materials are what allow the soft robot to navigate various situations, as opposed to computational intelligence,” says Jie Yin, corresponding author of a paper on the work and associate professor at NC State.

The soft robots are made of liquid crystal elastomers in the shape of a twisted ribbon. When the ribbon is placed on a surface that is at least 55 degrees Celsius (131 degrees Fahrenheit), which is hotter than the ambient air, the portion of the ribbon touching the surface contracts, while the portion of the ribbon exposed to the air does not. This induces a rolling motion in the ribbon. 

“This provides new insights into how we can design soft robots that are capable of harvesting heat energy from natural environments and autonomously negotiating complex, unstructured settings such as roads and harsh deserts,” Yin says. Photo: Jie Yin.

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