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Soft Robot Moves Across Any Surface Through Nature-Inspired Engineering

By replicating the gripping of geckos and locomotion of inchworms, researchers have developed a tiny, soft robot that could, one day, assist surgeons from inside the patient’s body.

Posted by Staff

February 27, 2023

A tiny robot that could one day assist doctors performing surgery from inside the patient’s body was inspired by the gripping ability of geckos and movement of inchworms. Developed by engineers at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, the soft robot can move across any vertical or horizontal surface and is reportedly the first of its kind to function without an external power source.

The robot is “powered” by ultraviolet (UV) light and magnetic force, enabling remote operation and versatility for potential applications such as assisting surgeons and searching otherwise inaccessible places.

The GeiwBot, as it has been called by the researchers in honor of the creatures that inspired it, is constructed from liquid crystal elastomers and synthetic adhesive pads. A light-responsive polymer strip simulates the arching and stretching motion of an inchworm, while gecko-inspired magnet pads at either end do the gripping. The pads can be altered at the molecular level to mimic how geckos stick and unstick powerful grippers on their feet. This enables the 4-cm-long, 3-mm-wide,  and 1-mm-thick (1.5 x 0.1 x 0.04 in.) robot to climb on a vertical wall and across the ceiling without being tethered to a power source. 

“This work is the first time a holistic soft robot has climbed on inverted surfaces, advancing state-of-the-art soft robotics innovation,” said Dr. Boxin Zhao, a professor of chemical engineering. “We are optimistic about its potential, with much more development, in several different fields.”

In addition to potential surgical applications via remote operation inside the human body, the robot may be deployed to search dangerous or hard-to-reach places during rescue operations.

Researchers said the next step is to develop a solely light-driven climbing soft robot that doesn’t require a magnetic field and uses near-infrared radiation instead of UV light to improve biocompatibility.

A paper describing the research has been published in Cell Reports Physical Science.

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