Andrew D. Marchese, Robert K. Katzschmann, and Daniela Rus have created, with their paper Whole Arm Planning for a Soft and Highly Compliant 2D Robotic Manipulator, a whole new way for your dreams to snap you awake in the middle of the night.
Using what they call "soft continuum manipulators," the research team at CSAIL and MIT have developed a pneumatically activated, snakelike robot which can direct and slither its way through a maze, and presumably, your plumbing.
The MIT team says using soft robots will provide a safer alternative to the hard metal tools typically used to work in tight and complex spaces.
While it's not designed to function on its own, the robot arm could ultimately be attached to a larger device, or perhaps given the proper application, operate autonomously. The device uses bursts of compressed air to provide what can only be called a disturbing variety of motion.
The control algorithms which drive the snake arm were meant to allow the creepy device to reach a given destination at the end of a plastic maze with a minimum number of touches to the walls of the track.
Created with six modules made of silicone rubber, all of the modules feature cores of a stiffer rubber built inside a pair of hollow cylinders. When one of the cylinders is filled with air, the resulting deformation of the entire snake bends the device left or right.
The team says the arms have the advantage of being more compliant and having more degrees of freedom than rigid redundant manipulators. They say it's this attribute which should allow such soft manipulators to autonomously execute highly dexterous tasks.
Soft robots are predominantly made of soft materials and have a continuously deformable structure, providing a relatively large number of degrees of freedom when compared to their hard counterparts.
They add that traditional approaches to kinematics and controls for soft robots often fail to consider the robot's entire shape or outer envelope and that prevents them from having the capability of autonomous navigation in confined environments. The team says their arm allows the soft planar manipulator to move its entire body through a confined pipe-like environment.
The device was fabricated through a casting process using pourable silicone rubber and 3D printed molds from a Stratasys Fortus 400mc.
Though I'm reluctant to mention a medical application, I leave you with a single, horrific thought: can you say endoscopy?