I typically get excited with any robotics technology aimed at the smart home. Recently though, some new developments in this space have me expanding my horizons. That’s mainly because the latest robots themselves can expand and contract in size! And while this could have positive impacts on the smart home, the possibilities are far broader.
Most recently, I read about a shape-shifting robot from GE Research. Think of it like a robotic snake that can crawl through pipes of varying thickness. The idea and applications here are initially for navigating city pipes. To do that, the robot needs the ability to adjust its size when tunneling from a large diameter pipe to a smaller one.
So, just like a snake that can expand its girth when swallowing large prey, this device can do the same: expanding or contracting in size as needed. It works by using a soft material for the robot’s body, which is inflated or deflated by an oil-filled bladder. By increasing the oil pressure, the “pipe-worm” grows in size. Likewise, decreasing the pressure allows the robot to shrink in diameter.
For now, connected wires supply the power and regulate the oil pressure, but with battery technology improving over time, this could be a completely wireless solution. And that solution isn’t just for moving through pipes. It can also map and clean them.
Attached to the outside of the snake-like robot are very basic sensors. But you can glean quite a bit of information from small bits of sensor data paired with machine learning:
“They are simple mechanisms that don’t sense all that much. All they know is where they bend. But when supercharged with a machine learning algorithm, this data is enough to allow the robot to inch its way through complicated pipe systems, turning on sharp angles and mapping inclines. You can literally put the Pipe-worm into a pipe and it won’t just figure out its own way around the system; it will draw you a map.”
With the sensors and just enough compute power to run the machine learning algorithms, you end up with an autonomous, flexible robot. And that opens up opportunities beyond simple pipe maps. The current GE Research robot can push or pull thousands of pounds. By adding that capability with the ability to change shape, it can break down any materials clogging the pipes.
The only feature I see missing from the robot in its current iteration is a lack of wireless connectivity. At least there’s no mention of it. So there must be some method to offload the mapping data. And if it’s not wireless, it certainly could be in the future.
Imagine having this robot in the water or sewer pipes of your home. It could constantly be creeping around to remove small clogs before they become bigger ones. All you’d have to do is have it installed and you’d never buy Drano again. On a larger scale, that’s part of what drove GE Research to create this robot: In 2017, it was estimated that it would cost nearly $31 billion to bring U.S. sewer lines into compliance, with much of that amount being the cost to clean the pipes using traditional methods.
Personally, I would love to see a dryer vent application of this technology as well. Our vent is nearly 20-feet long, so while it’s easy to access lint building up near the outer vent, it requires long tools for a full cleaning. A dryer vent robot could keep the lint from building up throughout the entire pipe, pushing it to the vent where you could easily remove it.
Aside from edge computing and machine learning, this new “soft robotics” is made possible with advances in materials technology. And another recent breakthrough could help propel shape-shifting robots into various cracks and crevices.
A recently published study by the Universities of Bath and Birmingham spotlight something called “active matter”. Instead of using currently available materials to change robotic structures like GE Research is doing, the active matter approach suggests using a special coating on robots. This coating is programmable, acting as a surface of tiny robots itself. Think of this like a nano-coating that can bend or stretch in different ways, depending on its confines.
Of course, this approach only handles the outside of any robotic mechanism. You’d still need flexible internals that wouldn’t crack under the strain of any shape or size changes. So this is really a next-generation application of shape-shifting robots. But the idea is sound and could enable a whole new lineup of solutions that simply aren’t possible today.
Going a step beyond where this technology is heading, I could envision autonomous microbots in a healthcare situation. Yes, we already have camera-enabled pills that can photograph the human stomach and intestinal tract. But what about small “pipe-worms” that could travel through your arteries looking for, and eliminating blockages?
Instead of a traditional heart stent that can expand a blocked artery in a specific area, programmable and resizable nanobots could do the same. And once a blockage is eliminated, that handy little bot could move on through your system to the next potential problem area.
I’m sure most people are ready for an application like that, which is fine because the technology isn’t there yet. Give it time though and we’ll shrink down the compute, sensor, and power restraints to make it happen at some point. For now, I’d just be thrilled to have clean pipes and vents in my home thanks to shape-shifting smart robots.