Tiny Robotic Tentacles: Good Things Do Come In Small Packages

 The soft robotic tentacles developed by engineer, Jaeyoun (Jay) Kim, at Iowa State University, move with spiraling motions in the same manner as elephant trunks, plant tendrils and monkey tails. This allows for accurate grabbing and softly squeezing items such as genty lassoing an ant as illustrated below.


Tiny Robotic Tentacles: Kim-Iowa State UniversityTiny Robotic Tentacles: Kim-Iowa State University


How do these soft and tiny robots differ from their conventional counterparts?

Conventional robots are subject to damage because their parts are rigid, making them unable to wriggle past obstacles and vulnerable to harm from bumps, scrapes, twists and falls. Recently, researchers have been developing robots from plastic and rubber that are softer and whose movements are inspired by octopuses, worms and starfish. These tiny robots move via compressed air.

Who developed these soft robotic tentacles? 

Electrical engineer, Jaeyoun (Jay) Kim, headed the research group which includes: In-Ho Cho, an Iowa State assistant professor of civil, construction and environmental engineering and Jungwook Paek, who recently earned his Iowa State doctorate in electrical and computer engineering. Together, they created these tiny robotic tentacles that can function as the hands and fingers of small robots. The engineers describe their micro-tentacles in a research paper recently published in the journal, Scientific Reports


Jaeyoun Kim: Source: Iowa State UniversityJaeyoun Kim: Source: Iowa State University.


In Kim's own words: "There's microrobotics, where people want to make robots smaller and smaller. And then there' s soft robotics where people don't want to make robots out of iron and steel. This project is an overlap of both of those fields...Most robots use two fingers and to pick up items they have to squeeze, but these tentacles wrap around very gently...That makes them the perfect hands and fingers for small robots designed to safely handle deicate objects...."

How do these tentacles work?

By moving in a spiraling manner similar to elephant trunks and octopus arms, these robotic tentacles can pick up and hold an ant whose waist is about 400 microns wide (0.0157 inch) without damaging its body. Researchers believe this type of locomotion can be very helpful in minimally-invasive surgeries that involve the delicate manipulation of fish eggs, embryos or blood vessels.


Tentacles Holding A Fish Egg: Kim-Iowa State UniversityTentacles Holding A Fish Egg: Kim-Iowa State University


About the length of the average red ant, the microscopic tubes are 5 to 8 millimeters long with each tube being about 100 microns wide or about as wide as a single human hair. The engineers developed never before used techniques to create these micro-tubes using computer modeling.They dipped the optcal fibers into liquid silicone rubber, which served to augment the ability  of the tubes to flex. Once they solidified, researchers peeled them off the rods. They used syringes as pumps to both inflate and deflate the tubes.

The future of tiny robotic tentacles

Micro-robotics  can only be a boon to medical science and micro-surgery. These tentacles cannot damage tissues or blood vessels giving them a distinct advantage in endovascular surgical procedures that require targeting areas reached through blood vessels.

Good things really do come in small packages.

Closing thought on robotics:

There are an endless number of things to discover about robotics. A lot of it is just too fantastic for people to believe. ~ Daniel H. Wlson

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