Mechanical engineers have, for a long time, been using the natural world as inspiration for robot design. However, the latest soft-robot that is taking inspired by nature might creep some people out. What started as an inadvertent thought from a mechanical engineering student has turned into a real robot. And it is in the shape of a leech.

This collaborative research project will unsurprisingly be called the ‘LEeCH’ (Longitudinally Extensible Continuum-robot inspired by Hirudinea). Hirudinea is a subclass of parasitic or predatory worms found in nature that belong to the phylum Annelida.

The original idea for the robot came from a Doctoral student in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the Toyohashi University of Technology. He said, “I came up with the idea in the bathroom of my house. The shower hose went wild as if it had a life when I inadvertently turned on the faucet at maximum. Then an idea occurred to me that if I could manipulate a hose, I might be able to  make a robot with the dynamic movement of a living creature.”

The researchers wanted to mimic a leech’s flexibility. The longitudinal muscles are what they are most interested in. The elongating and retracting of the body for the purpose of movement got the researchers designing something that could potentially be as flexible in the future.

Source: Toyohashi University of Technology

The collaboration involves Dr. Tomoaki Mashimo, Associated Professor of the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the Toyohashi University of Technology and Dr Fumiya Iida, Reader in Robotics at the Department of Engineering at the University of Cambridge.

However, if you assumed the robot was completely fleshed out and built with the most cutting edge materials, you would be wrong. The robot is fabricated out of suction cups and shower hoses. But, it is the 3 actuators that do the important work:

Immediately upon seeing what the first draft robot is capable of doing, the potential future uses of these robots become clear. Dr. Fumiya Iida explains, “climbing robots have a wide range of potential applications, including building inspection, maintenance, construction, and search and rescue tasks.

“Climbing robotics is still a challenging research field both theoretically and practically, but together, we have made significant contribution to advanced this field by creating a robot, inspired by leeches that can transition from one surface to another and can climb a vertical wall -- without any constraints.”

According to New Atlas, the leech-like climbing technique — which involves scaling a wall and transferring to the other side of a wall — is a world-first for robots. Climbing robots would be sought out by several engineering industries that desire constant oversight of their machinery even in those hardest to reach areas.

There is more work to do on refining the robot, however. The researchers intend to make the robot’s movement smoother. This means changing how stiff the tubes are by lubricating the inside of the cavity with liquids. The engineers can also work on making the robot much softer and more flexible so that the robot can reach its full potential and one day be used in those countless engineering sectors. And it all started with a shower hose, and a mechanical engineer’s imagination - with a little help from nature too.

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Works Cited
EurekAlert. “壁登りロボットの概要.” EurekAlert!, www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2019-05/tuot-iba051019.php.


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