Designing simpler spacecraft is what helped us finally put rovers on Mars and start exploring the Red Planet. Embracing simplicity might also give us simple, inexpensive robots that thrive doing very specific tasks, instead of multi-million dollar humanoids that have trouble just staying on their feet.
Stanford University and University of California researchers are the latest to take the KISS (keep it simple, stupid) approach to engineering with a new inflatable robot that “grows like a vine” as they describe it. But honestly, the soft robot, which inflates like a balloon to extend 72m, looks far more phallic than the researchers are willing to let on.
In a paper published recently in the Science Robotics journal, the researchers detail how the robot is really much more than a penis-shaped balloon. Its most impressive feat is its ability to steer and turn corners by lengthening or shortening one side, allowing it to navigate and crawl its way through complicated spaces.
Aside from exploration using a camera attached to its tip, or making it easier for contractors to run wiring through a wall, the robot could be used for finding victims in a search and rescue scenario and perhaps helping to free them. The researchers have successfully used it to lift a crate weighing over 68kg by first winding the robot beneath the box, and then fully inflating it. Similar devices are used to lift trucks that have rolled over, but the advantage to this robot and approach is that the rescue can be delivered to a hard-to-reach area.
The robot also has some interesting potential applications in medicine, both for exploratory surgery and delivering medications or installing catheters. Because it’s soft, there’s less risk of it causing tissue damage as it snakes its way through a person, and its flexibility could allow it to reach places current scope technology cannot. The one thing it won’t do is make your next colonoscopy any less creepy.