Growing ‘vine’ robot to save victims trapped in buildings

By Kitty Knowles 25 July 2017

Spreading like a creeper.

After an earthquake it can be difficult to quickly find and assist victims trapped under rubble – rescue teams must rely on sniffer dogs, or manually sift through debris.

Now though, a new device is being developed at Stamford University to help save lives in emergency situations.

It’s a robot that can creep through even tiny gaps, moving deftly between obstacles like a growing vine.

How it works

The new ‘vine bot’, unveiled in Science Robotics this month, could help in a wide range of search and rescue operations.

Once activated, the cylindrical device releases a tendril that extends forward, finding a path amidst the rubble. A camera at its tip allows rescuers to search within.

It’s essentially a soft folded tube, which can be filled with pressurised air to grow forward. However in other versions liquid could be used to deliver water to people trapped in tight spaces or to put out fires in closed rooms.

“The body lengthens as the material extends from the end but the rest of the body doesn’t move,” says lead author Elliot Hawkes, of the University of California, Santa Barbara.

“The body can be stuck to the environment or jammed between rocks, but that doesn’t stop the robot because the tip can continue to progress.”

Taking on unknown dangers

Researchers have already tested their prototypes in a number of situations, successfully overcoming the challenges of flypaper, sticky glue and nail punctures.

In one test, scientists were able to steer the device to towards a designated goal; in another it was able to deliver a power cable.

The robot even scaled an ice wall to deliver a sensor, which could measure carbon dioxide level to help track down trapped survivors.

It’s proved its ability to lift a 100-kilogram crate, to squeeze under a door gap just 10% of its diameter, and has grown into a free-standing spiral structure to help users send out a radio signal.

“The applications we’re focusing on are those where the robot moves through a difficult environment, where the features are unpredictable and there are unknown spaces,” said co-author Laura Blumenschein.

“If you can put a robot in these environments and it’s unaffected by the obstacles while it’s moving, you don’t need to worry about it getting damaged or stuck as it explores.”

A safer future?

The next step for the team is to explore scale to see how different sized devices could be used (a tiny 1.8 mm version has already been created that could be used in medical procedures!).

Scientists may only just be starting to understand the full potential of growing ‘vine bots’.

But one thing’s for sure: they’re going to save lives.

Watch the full explainer video from Stamford University below…