Emerging Technologies

Meet the revolutionary robot that's shaped like pasta

Pasta on a board.

Revolutionary new “soft robots” are made of liquid crystal elastomers and shaped like twisted ribbon pasta. Image: Unsplash/Jonathan Pielmayer

Matt Shipman
Research Communications Lead, University Communications, NC State University
Share:
Our Impact
What's the World Economic Forum doing to accelerate action on Emerging Technologies?
The Big Picture
Explore and monitor how Artificial Intelligence is affecting economies, industries and global issues
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
Stay up to date:

Emerging Technologies

  • These new “soft robots” are made of liquid crystal elastomers and shaped like twisted ribbon pasta.
  • Their design and the smart materials used allow them to respond to heat using physical intelligence rather than computational intelligence.
  • Researchers conducted multiple experiments showing that soft robots shaped like this can navigate a variety of maze-like environments with no human or computer intervention.
  • This could have implications for helping robots autonomously negotiate complex, unstructured settings such as roads and harsh deserts.
Loading...

“These soft robots demonstrate a concept called ‘physical intelligence,’ meaning that structural design and smart materials are what allow the soft robot to navigate various situations, as opposed to computational intelligence,” says Jie Yin, an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at North Carolina State University and corresponding author of a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The soft robots are made of liquid crystal elastomers in the shape of a twisted ribbon, resembling translucent rotini. When you place the ribbon on a surface that is at least 55 degrees Celsius (131 degrees Fahrenheit), which is hotter than the ambient air, the portion of the ribbon touching the surface contracts, while the portion of the ribbon exposed to the air does not.

This induces a rolling motion in the ribbon. And the warmer the surface, the faster it rolls.

“This has been done before with smooth-sided rods, but that shape has a drawback—when it encounters an object, it simply spins in place,” says Yin. “The soft robot we’ve made in a twisted ribbon shape is capable of negotiating these obstacles with no human or computer intervention whatsoever.”

The ribbon robot does this in two ways. First, if one end of the ribbon encounters an object, the ribbon rotates slightly to get around the obstacle. Second, if the central part of the robot encounters an object, it “snaps.”

The snap is a rapid release of stored deformation energy that causes the ribbon to jump slightly and reorient itself before landing. The ribbon may need to snap more than once before finding an orientation that allows is to negotiate the obstacle, but ultimately it always finds a clear path forward.

“In this sense, it’s much like the robotic vacuums that many people use in their homes,” Yin says. “Except the soft robot we’ve created draws energy from its environment and operates without any computer programming.”

“The two actions, rotating and snapping, that allow the robot to negotiate obstacles operate on a gradient,” says Yao Zhao, a postdoctoral researcher and the paper’s first author.

“The most powerful snap occurs if an object touches the center of the ribbon. But the ribbon will still snap if an object touches the ribbon away from the center, it’s just less powerful. And the further you are from the center, the less pronounced the snap, until you reach the last fifth of the ribbon’s length, which does not produce a snap at all.”

The researchers conducted multiple experiments demonstrating that the ribbon-like soft robot is capable of navigating a variety of maze-like environments. The researchers also demonstrated that the soft robots would work well in desert environments, showing they were capable of climbing and descending slopes of loose sand.

“This is interesting, and fun to look at, but more importantly it provides new insights into how we can design soft robots that are capable of harvesting heat energy from natural environments and autonomously negotiating complex, unstructured settings such as roads and harsh deserts.” Yin says.

Discover

How is the World Economic Forum ensuring the responsible use of technology?

Have you read?
Loading...
Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Share:
World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

How to develop creative talent for a sustainable and AI-driven future

Chun Yin Mak

June 18, 2024

About Us

Events

Media

Partners & Members

  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum