A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), with support from the City of Worcester, has developed a lizard-like soft robot capable of crawling into walls, wires and pipes to perform inspections or 3D mapping tasks. The task was to build a robot that could do its job in a minimally invasive way and cause less damage than current methods.
Flexible thanks to origami folding
The robot consists of 3D printed and laser-cut components as well as metal parts. The middle part of the robot is designed to be flexible thanks to an origami fold. It allows the robot to adapt to tight spaces. There is a microcomputer on board the robot, which, among other things, controls the drive motors and evaluates the sensors on board for temperature measurement and pollutant content testing. There are also cameras in the robot that enable 3D mapping.
Equipped in this way, the lizard robot can move largely autonomously using artificial intelligence (AI), collecting environmental data and mapping its surroundings. Thanks to its flexible body, this can be achieved even in the tightest of spaces. It helps that the steering and drive systems are separate from each other. This means he can move horizontally and vertically without getting stuck.
Its modular concept makes it possible to combine several motors and thus drives with each other in order to be able to overcome larger steps or gaps and make better progress in pipe networks.
Renovation of old and historical buildings
The project, which received $50,000 in funding from the National Science Foundation, is important to the city of Worcester. She wants to use the robot to check old buildings for their sustainability in order to make them better fit for the future. This includes optimal thermal insulation against cold in winter and insulation against heat in summer. The robot should also be able to penetrate areas that are harmful to workers’ health and thus improve their safety.
The robot’s mapping technology could close the gap between what a city administration already knows about an old building based on construction plans and the actual conditions. Historic buildings could be carefully modernized without destroying them through other exploratory measures, such as opening holes in walls. That would cause high costs, money that municipalities only have a limited amount of money at their disposal.
The lizard robot is already being tested and is being continually improved to bring it to commercial maturity.
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