Engineers at the University of Waterloo have taken inspiration from the incredible gripping ability of geckos and the efficient locomotion of inchworms to develop a tiny robot that could one day help doctors perform surgery. The new robot utilises ultraviolet light and magnetic force to move on any surface – even up walls and across ceilings.
The soft robot is the first of its kind to be able to function without being connected to an external power supply, enabling remote operation and versatility for potential applications such as assisting surgeons and searching otherwise inaccessible places.
‘This work is the first time a holistic soft robot has climbed on inverted surfaces, advancing state-of-the-art soft-robotics innovation,’ said Boxin Zhao, a professor of chemical engineering and the University of Waterloo endowed chair in nanotechnology. ‘We are optimistic about its potential, with much more development, in several different fields.’
Constructed from a smart material, the robot – dubbed the GeiwBot in recognition of the creatures that inspired it – can be altered at the molecular level to mimic how geckos stick and unstick powerful grippers on their feet. This enables the robot – which is about four centimetres long, three millimetres wide and one millimetre thick – to climb on a vertical wall and across the ceiling without being tethered to a power source.
Zhao and his research team constructed the robot using 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.
‘Even though there are still limitations to overcome, this development represents a significant milestone for utilising biomimicry and smart materials for soft robots,’ said Zhao. ‘Nature is a great source of inspiration and nanotechnology is an exciting way to apply its lessons.’
An untethered soft robot paves the way for potential surgical applications via remote operation inside the human body and for sensing or searching in dangerous or hard-to-reach places during rescue operations.
The researchers’ next step for 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, which would improve biocompatibility.
The research has been published in Cell Reports Physical Science.