Miniature robot = can crawl with inchworm-like motion. (Credit: University of Toronto)

Researchers have created a miniature robot that can crawl with inchworm-like motion. The underlying technology could one day transform smart wearables.

Professor Hani Naguib (MIE, MSE) and his group specialize in smart materials. One line of their research focuses on electrothermal actuators (ETAs), devices made of specialized polymers that can be programmed to physically respond to electrical or thermal changes.

For example, an ETA could be programmed to mimic muscle reflexes, tensing up when cold and relaxing when hot.

Naguib and his team are applying this technology to the robotics field, creating ‘soft’ robots that can crawl and curl. They believe these could one day replace the bulky and metal-plated bots found in manufacturing industries.

Although responsive materials have been studied for decades, the team has discovered a novel approach to programming them, resulting in the inchworm motion demonstrated in a paper recently published in Scientific Reports.

They have created an ETA with a three-dimensional resting state. They used a thermal-induced, stress-relaxation and curing method that opens far more possibilities in shape and movement.

Naguib says these programmable shape-shifting soft robots won’t just revolutionize manufacturing industries: it could be useful in fields including surgery and wearable electronics.