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'Soft robots' will use gut-wrenching propulsion method

Bowel-churning caterpillar boffinry breakthrough

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American boffins say they are poised to invent a new class of shape-shifting "soft bodied robots" which will manoeuvre - perhaps inside the human body - by mimicking the literally gut-wrenching means by which certain species of creepy-crawly get about.

Assembled experts in the States have opened the door to a fearsome new class of "softbots" by probing the very bowels of crawling Manduca sexta caterpillars. These little chaps, according to Professor Jake Socha, move using "a unique phenomenon of gut sliding ... unlike any form of legged locomotion previously reported".

The caterpillars apparently pump their bowels furiously back and forth as they crawl about. This "internally pistoning gut" or "visceral-locomotory pistoning" mechanism "is a novel finding in animal locomotion", according to Socha and his colleagues.

The boffins are particularly proud of themselves for figuring out the caterpillars' gutsy antics, as it is apparently no easy feat to work out what's going on inside them - one part of a caterpillar seemingly looks much like another even under X-ray.

By dint of phase-contrast synchrotron X-ray imaging and transmission light microscopy, however, the team managed to get a good look at the pulsing insides of the caterpillars and discovered "a nonlinear elastic gut that changes size and translates between the anterior and posterior of the animal".

According to a statement issued by Prof Socha's uni, Virginia Tech:

The findings are already finding their way into designing maneuverable and orientation-independent soft material robots. The next step for these 'softbots' includes a diverse array of potential uses, such as shape-changing robots capable of engaging in search-and-rescue operations, space applications for which a 'gravity-agnostic' crawler would be highly valued, and medical applications in which a biocompatible, soft robot would reduce incidental tissue damage and discomfort.

Our old friends at DARPA, for instance, are known to be working on squidgy droids able to squeeze through narrow openings. Overall, though, the medical applications would seem likeliest. Potentially uncomfortable intrusions into one's body may in future be performed, not by a nasty rigid robot but a nice soft one equipped with visceral-locomotory bowel-churn propulsion.

The new research, accompanied by an explanatory vid, can be found here. ®

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