3 min read

Here Come The Robot Worms

Inching around in labs today, the soft but hammer-proof "Meshworm" could someday slither down your throat.
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There's no shortage of creepy, eerie, or otherwise disturbing robots. But a new worm-inspired robotics research project created by scientists from MIT, Harvard University, and Seoul National University pushes the ick-factor envelope.

"Meshworm" is a soft robot made from a flexible mesh tube. Its creators developed artificial muscles using wire made of nickel and titanium. This shape-memory alloy expands and contracts with heat, mimicking a process called peristalsis--the tubular muscle contractions by which worms wander and food traverses the throat.

The adjective "soft" may seem to be poorly paired with "robot," a term that still evokes hard metal machines from classic science fiction, but it doesn't mean "weak" in this context: The Meshworm, like many compelling robot villains in books and films, is one tough customer. Step on it or beat it with a hammer, as demonstrated in the video embedded below, and it just keeps crawling along.

[ No robots here. Read Google Gmail, Search Linkup Makes Waves. ]

"You can throw it, and it won't collapse," Sangbae Kim, MIT assistant professor of mechanical engineering, told the MIT News Office. "Most mechanical parts are rigid and fragile at small scale, but the parts in Meshworms are all fibrous and flexible. The muscles are soft, and the body is soft … we're starting to show some body-morphing capability."

Were you writing the next Internet-friendly summer blockbuster--let's call it Robot Snakes On A Plane--Meshworms would be worth considering as potential antagonists. Soft machines just seem wrong. Soft machines that crawl provide the same slow-motion tension of a zombie chase. And hammer-proof coils of artificial muscle promise interesting fight scenes. Better still, it's a military project: Funding comes from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA.

Such fanciful scenarios, however, aren't exactly what DARPA or the project researchers have in mind. Kellar Autumn, a professor of biology at Lewis and Clark College, told the MIT News Office that likely applications for the technology include future endoscopes (used for peering inside of bodies), implants, and prosthetics. Autumn believes that shape-changing artificial muscles will also find uses in consumer electronics, like mobile phones and portable computers, and in vehicles.

Just think, not only might a future iPhone wiggle around in your pocket, but it could end up crawling out to let you know that you have a call from David Cronenberg. If that doesn't appeal to you, just make sure to disable Autonomous Notifications, under the Settings menu of iOS 15.