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Caterpillars and the next generation of rolling robots


April 27, 2011

Caterpillars have inspired a soft-bodied robot that can move fast as well as wriggle into tight spaces (Photo: Arthur Chapman via Flickr)

Caterpillars have inspired a soft-bodied robot that can move fast as well as wriggle into tight spaces (Photo: Arthur Chapman via Flickr)

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:

About the Author
Noel McKeegan After a misspent youth at law school, Noel began to dabble in tech research, writing and things with wheels that go fast. This bus dropped him at the door of a freshly sprouted Gizmag.com in 2002. He has been Gizmag's Editor-in-Chief since 2007. All articles by Noel McKeegan

\"natural selection\" as I understand it is a random series of accidents until they get it right. Intelligent well schooled engineers are trained to design things that work and preform as the designer intended. Why do so many creators copy from \"natural selection\" which come from accidents. Surely after millions of years - there should be millions of the unsuccessful failures in the \"natural\" process! Yet not one has ever been found. I\'m sure there are a few unsuccessful parts from the \"creation of GoQBot\" around somewhere. So if \"natural selection\" is so inspirational - where are its discarded parts? Does it take faith on my part to believe they EVER existed or should I believe in scientific fact? The greatest ideas come from something.


Agreed donwine... the chances of the multiple \"accidents\" of mutation occurring simultaneously to \"create\" this capacity is staggeringly small, on the nature of 1 to the minus 500. Akin to the possibility that hemoglobin could develop its amino acid chain of perfect length and order. One mutation missing and it doesn\'t work and all that energy is used for naught. 13.5 billion years is WAY too short for anything like this to happen.


Oh, you creationists always choose to NOT see the obvious...

\"So if \"natural selection\" is so inspirational - where are its discarded parts?\"

So... you\'ve never once heard of something called a \"birth defect\"? Would YOU want to have a child with someone who has a \"birth defect\"?

Believe it or not, birth defects ARE genetic mutations. A defect is deemed as something unfavorable and limiting compared to what is considered \"normal\".

If there were a case that a baby eventually exhibited the ability to jump 4 meters off the ground, that would be declared a birth improvement, and you might very well decide that it is a good thing to mate with such a potential mate.

Per period of time, there are magnitudes more \"normal\" offspring than either \"defects\" or \"improved\". While the total number of mutations per 10000 might be 10, say, the probability of any particular genetic malfunction occurring is MUCH MUCH less. There coming across a defect will be extremely rare; they will die out in one generation, certainly less than two. An \"improvement\" on the other hand, will be desired and will carry forward though many generations, if not forever.

Being that birth defects are so fleeting in terms of total numbers, it\'s no wonder that they are hard to find. I have NO doubt that many declared \"newly discovered\" species from eons of old are, in fact, the one-shot \"discarded parts\" that you are looking for. Some are surely just improperly labeled as new species rather than the rare (fleeting) \"defective\" mutations that they are.

So, in summary, birth defects have occurred throughout the entire history of multi-cellular organisms. It is only when you purposefully exclude the obvious that you find reason to eschew natural selection for creationism.


\"Desired\" is the wrong word. I meant \"beneficial\" in terms of survivability or ability to produce offspring.

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