The millions of years of natural selection that lies behind the immense biodiversity found on our planet is fertile ground for keeping robotics research rolling ... in this case, literally. Some caterpillars in the Crambidae family have the amazing ability to spring into a wheel shape and roll away when it's time to get out of Dodge fast, and it is this talent that has inspired the creation of GoQBot – a 3-inch cm long soft-bodied robot that could provide a blueprint for versatile search and rescue robots of the future.

The gut-sliding locomotion of caterpillars has already formed the basis of research into soft-bodied robots. In this case scientists are mimicking the caterpillar's ability known as "ballistic rolling" – one of the fastest wheeling behaviors in nature – with the aim of creating limbless robots which can move fast as well as wriggle into tight spaces.

"GoQBot demonstrates a solution by reconfiguring its body and could therefore enhance several robotic applications such as urban rescue, building inspection, and environmental monitoring," said lead author Huai-Ti Lin from the Department of Biology, Tufts University. "Due to the increased speed and range, limbless crawling robots with ballistic rolling capability could be deployed more generally at a disaster site such as a tsunami aftermath. The robot can wheel to a debris field and wiggle into the danger for us."

The GoQBot (the "Q" is a reference to the shape it makes before scooting away) takes less than 100 ms to reconfigure from flat to wheel-shaped before rolling away at over half a meter per second. Each roll covers a distance of around 10-inches.

The 3-inch long robot is made of silicone rubber and actuated by embedded shape memory alloy coils. It's also fitted with five infrared emitters along its side to enable high-speed 3D motion tracking.

The study is published this week in the IOP journal Bioinspiration & Biomimetics.

The video below shows the GoQbot's ballistic rolling ability in real-time: