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NC State debuts first untethered soft robot mapping unknown terrain

A team of researchers at North Carolina State University (NC State) have created a groundbreaking new soft robot dubbed the “twisted ringbot” which can simultaneously travel, rotate and follow boundaries - all without external control or guidance. This triply concurrent autonomous functionality enables the bots to feel their way through unfamiliar spaces and self-map dimensions, shapes and defects for later reconstruction.

The breakthrough promises to revolutionize real-world navigation and mapping capabilities within unstructured environments by simplifying deployment versus existing methods requiring intensive oversight or infrastructure.

“We essentially embedded multiple key behaviors like forward propulsion, axial spin and contour tracking innate within twisted ringbots’ actual liquid crystal anatomy,” explained lead creator Dr. Jie Yin of NC State’s Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering department.

“This permits sending swarms into the great unknown without worrying - they’ll figure surrounding topology out themselves through sheer instinct.”

Inspired by natural phenomena like swirling vortices, Yin and team laser-cut responsive liquid crystal tape into conical rings programmed to perpetual roll when heated. Each full rotation nudges bots slightly forward as the warmer underside contracts compared to cooler upper sections. Multiple integrated twists also introduce torque spinning the ringbot around central axes reminiscent of toy tops.

The combined kinetic forces prompt enthralling spiral orbits along encountered boundaries. And introducing objects alters pathways - capturing spatial dimensions.

Field Tests Confirm Viability Yin confirmed tests across square, triangular and irregular custom enclosures conclusively proved ringbots intuitively tracing borders with remarkable accuracy without external navigation aids like GPS or SLAM laser scanning.

Varying numbered swarms can rapidly validate mappings by corroborating separately logged routes. Sending more bots also helps quicker blanket complex environments.

Such autonomousRoom mapping holds tremendous promise for disaster response or hazardous sites too dangerous for humans. But Yin believes immediate commercial potential likely lies in inspection and surveyance.

“Twisted ringbots can be readily dispatched crawling through tight spaces like conduits, vents or tunnels scanning cracks plus obstructions and relaying 3D models back,” he said. “Their soft squishy material securely slips past jagged points shredding drones.”

Yin is particularly enthused about subsidence surveys around swelling urban metroplexes choked with antiquated underground infrastructure. Many zones forbid air vehicles yet desperately need monitoring.

Here the bots’ capacity working sans tethers checking stability of aging tunnels or chambers could prove invaluable preventing tragedy. Yin noted they also work underwater.

Research partner Fangjie Qi, an NC State graduate student, concurs the venturesome technology holds vast potential still being unpacked.

“We constantly discover new behaviors and modifications organically improving functionality,” he said. “I’m perpetually amazed by recordings showing ringbots spontaneously rolling lockstep or reversing spin directions for tighter turns - it’s eerie feeling alive!”

The Next Wave of Soft Robotics

Analysts consider the new soft robots pivotal milestones bringing field proven functionality towards academic thought experiments. The hands-off reliable operation specifically contrasts most predecessors confined to limited ranges or provisions.

“Built-in accountability through peer validation boosts trust in readings without direct eyes-on,” said Dr. Ekta Shukla, Director of Soft Robotics Research, ABI. “And eliminating tethering cables or batteries should greatly reduce costs and failure rates.”

Shukla does recommend sturdier outer shells for real deployments but believes fabrication improvements will solve that shortcoming. For now, she’s bullish twisted ringbots inaugurating a new generation of radical soft robot form factors mirroring natural motility.

Yin himself concurs the untapped potential remains vast. New student projects already explore quadruped gaits and underwater manipulation modules fitting sensor payloads. The team also continues enhancing mapping fidelity and obstacle reactions.

“Honestly I just love watching how nimble and lively the ringbots behave as if possessing minds of their own!” he chuckled. “They captivate imaginations towards fresh horizons and that creative spark often births innovation.”

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