Robotic systems inspired by plants
The Plant Kingdom represents an amazing source of inspiration for designing and developing smart technological solutions, such as new materials, mechanisms, sensors, actuators, and control schemes. Plants are in fact dynamic and highly sensitive organisms and they represent the best example among living beings of efficient soil exploration and conquer of almost any surface of the planet. In order to exploit distributed environmental resources, plants develop a network of growing and branching roots, whose tips (apices) are highly sensorized and efficiently explore the soil volume, mining minerals, and up-taking water to fulfill their primary functions.
Development of novel principles for penetration, sensory detection, and autonomous decision making could open up new horizons in robotics: autonomous agents able to localize a subsoil source could be used in order to find water and other relevant substances, or to detect the presence of dangerous pollutants and minimize the soil contamination.
CMBR is studying these plant capabilities in order to develop a robot inspired by plant roots, called PLANTOID. The smart, effective, and efficient strategies of plant roots to perform soil exploration are investigated in order to develop a new generation of technologies in sensing (e.g. touch, humidity), actuation (mainly based on the osmotic principle), and collective behavior.
Soft robotics is a current focus in robotics research because of the expected capability of soft robots to better interact with real-world environments. The adaptability of their body morphology makes it possible to simplify the control of these robots in accordance with the Embodied Intelligence principles. As a point of inspiration in the development of innovative technologies in soft robotics, octopuses are particularly interesting "animal models". Octopus arms have unique biomechanical capabilities that combine significant pliability with the ability to exert a great deal of force because they lack rigid structures but can change and control their degree of stiffness. The octopus arm is made more fascinating because of the presence of suckers, which represent a natural system performing adhesion on different terrains and substrates. The ongoing research at CMBR is based on the observation of the real animal and on the study of the morphology and mechanisms of suckers and arms in Octopus vulgaris. The robotic goal is to develop artificial adhesion mechanisms and robotic arms, drawing inspiration from this soft animal. This study offers potential cues for the development of innovative, bioinspired artificial adhesion strategies and devices able to outperform the ones currently available.
In soft robotics the sense of touch is particularly important, because it provides useful static and dynamic tactile information to a robot for the interaction with the surrounding environment and its exploration. CMBR approach is to integrate both sensors and electronics with new materials and in new designs, in order to achieve full flexibility, compliance, extensibility, and robustness of the whole integrated system. The target mechanical characteristics are of soft distributed devices capable of surrounding 3D systems but also single devices. Specifically, new designs with well-known and "conventional" materials and new materials in more conventional designs are investigated. Currently, tactile systems are being developed by exploiting properties of infrared (IR) waves travelling in transparent and flexible materials, and capacitive or resistive based layouts in polymeric materials are strongly pursued as well. Here CMBR aims at building sensors with the materials used in flexible electronics technology (i.e. organic materials like conducting polymers or CNT based components).
This research line also includes the application of innovative soft materials and architectures (also bio-inspired) for the development of mobile autonomous microrobots. 3D navigation of microscale robots in unstructured environments represents a very challenging scientific and technological goal. CMBR is addressing the development of swimming soft microrobots in fluids, taking as reference bodily fluids as potential target environments. In a first phase, external magnetic fields are used to propel and control microstructures used to study the properties to be conferred to the microrobot body in order to be oriented and directed in liquids. In parallel, the enabling technologies towards autonomy, that refers to both self-actuation and self-powering, are concurrently investigated. Self-oscillating hydrogels capable of producing chemo-mechanical waves and piezoelectric nanowire assemblies in soft structures are candidate solutions currently investigated for incorporating power in the microrobots. Besides, soft actuators (e.g. based on conducting polymers) that need to create efficient propulsion when coupled to a useful energy source, are studied with dynamics design bioinspired to microorganisms movement in fluid. All the aspects referred to the microrobot body structure, power source and actuation are investigated by going through a system approach in order to identify new strategies towards totally innovative mobile microrobots.
Biomedical endoscopic robotic solutions
The development of untethered and tethered biomedical micro/millirobots with potential applications in targeted delivery and mininvasive diagnosis and therapy is pursued.
The Central Nervous System has been identified as a remarkable application domain due to the many deriving human disabling pathologies (including brain tumors, epilepsy, Parkinson disease, etc.). In this context, the development of a dexterous probe for diagnosis and intervention (e.g. material removal, implant insertion and local drug delivery) within the ventricular system is being addressed. Such a probe will be framed in a robotic platform for computer-aided surgery, aimed at enhancing accuracy and efficacy. Modeling activities are being also carried out, addressing corresponding lower-level aspects (e.g. tool-tissue interaction and drug dispersion within the cerebro-spinal fluid).