Vine robots: Exploring new paths to safety and health

Margaret Coad

The animal kingdom has long been a source of inspiration for the design of robots, which use legs to walk, run, jump, and climb. Now researchers are pioneering a new class of soft robots inspired by the plant kingdom — especially vines, which use growth as a way to move around, over, and through the environment.

“Vine robots transform what robots are capable of, through a new way of moving and interacting with the world,” said Margaret Coad, assistant professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering at the University of Notre Dame.

“Because their bodies are soft and they move by growing from their tip, they can navigate confined spaces and uneven terrain with ease.”

Vine robots have immense potential to explore spaces too small or dangerous for humans to enter, Coad said. Researchers envision applications such as finding victims trapped in rubble after a building collapse, delivering medicine deep inside the body, or exploring tunnels in an archeological site without the need for excavation.

Coad joined the Notre Dame Engineering faculty in fall 2021. The previous spring, while at Stanford University, Coad and her co-authors received the IEEE Robotics and Automation Magazine Best Paper Award for the 2020 paper titled “Vine Robots: Design, Teleoperation, and Deployment for Navigation and Exploration.”

The paper demonstrated that vine robots are not just an idea, but are actually useful in the field. As shown in the video above, the vine robots moved on a competition course over uneven terrain, past unstable obstacles, and through a small aperture.

While navigating an archeological site in Chavin, Peru, the vine robots moved over rocks, through horizontal and vertical turns, past obstacles, and through tunnels.

At Notre Dame, Coad and her student colleagues in the Innovative Robotics and Interactive Systems (IRIS) Lab are working to give vine robots new capabilities that will make them even more useful.

For example, they are researching ways to enable vine robots to grasp objects so that they can be used not only to explore spaces but also potentially to move objects and even rescue people or animals. They also are looking into ways to sense the shape of the vine robot and its contact with the environment to allow mapping of the spaces being explored and to enable more secure grasps.

— College of Engineering