Robotics Researchers Create Mechanical Tentacles Capable Of Picking Up An Ant Without Crushing It

Jaeyoun Kim / Iowa State University

This creepy robot tentacle could one day be fiddling with your veins. Researchers were able to use the tiny, but remarkably soft, robot ‘limb’ to pick up an ant by its waist without crushing it. This robotic limb has the potential to revolutionize microscopic surgery.

The study, published in Scientific Reports, demonstrated how the robotic tentacle, which is a microtube made from a stretchy polymer, can gently curl around objects, pick them up and move them. These microtubes are seriously small, about the length of an average red ant and the width of a human hair. They can also curl up to 200 microns in diameter. Conventional robots are, in comparison, far more likely to be made from rigid parts, which makes them more at risk of damage and reduces their precision.

Researchers have previously found it challenging to create miniaturized soft robots—inspired by biological systems such as tentacles—for tiny applications. Past attempts have only been able to produce them at the centimeter-scale. Engineers from Iowa State University have been able to overcome these obstacles and develop a robot tentacle at the micro-scale.

As Live Science explains, researchers created these microtubes by first dipping thin wires or optical fibers in liquid silicone rubber. Once the rubber solidified, researchers peeled off the wires and fibers. This created hollow tubes, with one side thicker than the other, which were able to curl once inflated with a syringe. Researchers reinforced the flexibility of the rubber tubes by adding rings of silicon rubber to their exterior, allowing it to curl without being inflated.

Image credit: Jaeyoun Kim / Iowa State University

The result: A robotic tentacle that was able to pick up and hold an ant with a waist around 400 microns wide. It was also able to carefully wrap around fish eggs, which are known to easily deform and burst when handled with tweezers. Researchers hope to one day use the tentacles in complex microsurgery, such as endovascular operations, where it can delicately handle blood vessels.

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