Research ArticleSOFT ROBOTS

Controlling subterranean forces enables a fast, steerable, burrowing soft robot

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Science Robotics  16 Jun 2021:
Vol. 6, Issue 55, eabe2922
DOI: 10.1126/scirobotics.abe2922

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Abstract

Robotic navigation on land, through air, and in water is well researched; numerous robots have successfully demonstrated motion in these environments. However, one frontier for robotic locomotion remains largely unexplored—below ground. Subterranean navigation is simply hard to do, in part because the interaction forces of underground motion are higher than in air or water by orders of magnitude and because we lack for these interactions a robust fundamental physics understanding. We present and test three hypotheses, derived from biological observation and the physics of granular intrusion, and use the results to inform the design of our burrowing robot. These results reveal that (i) tip extension reduces total drag by an amount equal to the skin drag of the body, (ii) granular aeration via tip-based airflow reduces drag with a nonlinear dependence on depth and flow angle, and (iii) variation of the angle of the tip-based flow has a nonmonotonic effect on lift in granular media. Informed by these results, we realize a steerable, root-like soft robot that controls subterranean lift and drag forces to burrow faster than previous approaches by over an order of magnitude and does so through real sand. We also demonstrate that the robot can modulate its pullout force by an order of magnitude and control its direction of motion in both the horizontal and vertical planes to navigate around subterranean obstacles. Our results advance the understanding and capabilities of robotic subterranean locomotion.

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