Next-generation robots can navigate through complex environments

A snake-inspired robot could be used for exploration, inspection, and monitoring
The AntBot moves and navigates just like a desert ant
Velox can move on sand, water, and even ice
The future of all-terrain robots

Advancements in robotics seem to happen almost on a daily basis, but even though a significant amount of work has been automated with robots, these innovations still face several challenges. Robots offer tremendous potential to automate mundane and dangerous tasks. However, most robots today aren’t sophisticated enough to navigate through rough and difficult terrain. Robotics companies and experts are well aware of this issue and have already made progress that could lead to the development of more versatile robots.

With investors pouring money into this field, robotics is growing faster than expected. According to Transparency Market Research, a company specialising in market analysis, the global robotics market is expected to reach $147.26 billion by the end of 2025, with North America dominating the market. Due to the rapid growth of the industry, robotic capabilities continue to expand and amaze us.

 

A snake-inspired robot could be used for exploration, inspection, and monitoring

One such innovation comes from a team at Harvard’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), who developed a soft robot that moves like a snake. Since it can crawl into almost any gap, this robot could be particularly useful in exploring disaster areas. To design the robot, the researchers applied the principles of kirigami, a Japanese paper craft that relies on using cuts and folds to create a 3D ornament. Once the robot stretches, its surface becomes textured, which allows it to grip the ground and move like a snake.

This isn’t the first time that the team experimented with snake-inspired robots. In 2018, they developed the first version of this robot, also based on kirigami principles. However, they claim that the new solution is a lot faster and more accurate than its predecessor. In the previous version, once the robot stretched, its structure would pop-up all at once. With the new solution, this isn’t the case, because the robot has a programmable shell, which allows it to feature discontinuous pop-up deformations. Innovations such as this one open new possibilities for the development of “a new class of soft crawlers”, says Professor Katie Bertoldi, who took part in the research. As Bertoldi explains, “These all-terrain soft robots could one day travel across difficult environments for exploration, inspection, monitoring and search and rescue missions, or perform complex, laparoscopic medical procedures.”

 

The AntBot moves and navigates just like a desert ant

Another interesting solution comes from the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS). To develop a six-legged robot called AntBot, the researchers took inspiration from desert ants. Compared to wheeled robots, legged ones are more efficient because they’re able to traverse rough terrain. What makes the AntBot so unique is that it doesn’t rely on GPS and mapping tech for navigation. Instead, just like desert ants, AntBot relies on ultraviolet light from the sun. As the sun moves across the sky, the pattern of ultraviolet light changes accordingly, and ants can detect it. This technique allows desert ants to identify the right direction. In addition to this, the ants – and the robot – also rely on ‘optic flow’ (how fast the ground is moving around them) and how many steps they’ve taken to know their location.

During testing, which was conducted in different environments, a fully autonomous AntBot was able to successfully navigate a space and find the quickest way back ‘home’. The reason why the team decided not to equip the robot with traditional GPS technology is that it’s not very reliable. Its performance can be obstructed by tall buildings, and it’s not rare for GPS to fail to operate on a rainy or snowy day. AntBot, however, doesn’t have that problem.

 

Velox can move on sand, water, and even ice

Robotic solutions designed to mimic animals and their abilities have many advantages over traditional robots. But they do come with a major drawback. A robot that’s based on an animal model usually inherits the limitations of that particular animal. In other words, a robot that’s designed to swim like a fish wouldn’t be able to move on solid ground. However, the engineering company Pliant Energy Systems has come up with a solution to address this issue.

The company designed Velox, a robot that can easily move on different surfaces, including sand, water, and ice, using only a pair of undulating fins. The innovation works autonomously, but it can also be remotely controlled. While swimming underwater, Velox is able to change direction and make quick turns. It can be used in sensitive environments where traditional propellers can damage plants and sediment layers. According to the company’s website, Velox could also be leveraged to deliver medical supplies and provide help in ice-rescue missions.

 

The future of all-terrain robots

Robots, which are often greeted with fear and scepticism, are becoming more sophisticated. With new advances in the field, robots are given the ability to autonomously move in complex environments. Designed to walk, crawl, slide, or swim, these innovations will become prominent in many industries. These breakthrough technologies will take care of dangerous tasks, allow us to explore hard-to-reach places, and help us rescue people in disaster areas – the future is bright!

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