Robots have a hard time performing some tasks that humans take for granted. Tasks like reaching behind objects on a shelf to get the one required for a job that situated in the back without disturbing other items on the shelf is an example of a task easy for humans. That sort of task is a challenge for robots, but MIT has a new robot that offers a solution to this challenge.
Engineers at MIT have developed a robot designed to extend a chain-like appendage that is flexible enough to twist and turn in any needed configuration. While the robot the MIT team developed is flexible, it’s also rigid enough to support heavy loads or apply torque to assemble parts in tight spaces. When the tasks is complete, the appendage can be retracted and extended again at a different length to suit the next job.
The team took inspiration for the appendage from the way plants grow. The “growing point” of the robot is a gearbox that pulls a loose chain of interlocking blocks into the box. Gears in the box then lock the chain units together and feed the chain out unit by unit as a rigid appendage. The team visions multiple uses for the robot.
They see grippers, cameras, and other sensors mounted on the robot’s gearbox. The attachments could allow it to get inside an aircraft propulsion system and tighten a loose screw or reach into a shelf and grab a product without disturbing other items.
One researcher on the team uses an example of changing the oil in your car. He says that you need to be flexible enough to make sharp turns to reach the oil filter and then strong enough to twist the oil filter to remove it. He says that we now have a robot that can potentially accomplish such tasks.