Chinese scientists claim to have built tiny robot worms that can navigate and inspect narrow pipes with endoscopic cameras. The novel invention could pave the way for a more efficient and cost-effective alternative to pipeline exploration and diagnostics.
Researchers say their creation is best suited to exploring aircraft pipes, oil refineries and machinery otherwise inaccessible to standard equipment.
The Tsinghua University team responsible for the worm-like robots published their peer-reviewed work in the blue ribbon science journal, Science Robotics, at the end of May 2022.
Each unit measures just 5 centimetres in length and has a diameter of 1 centimetre. The tiny robots can be assembled via magnets to create a longer worm, according to the group of engineers. They are constructed from a rubbery compound and can bend and contort into various shapes when an external force is applied.
The research team said their creation achieved an L-shape, an S-shape and a spiral shape. Each centimetre-long worm moves via elastomer actuators and climbs vertically at 0.9 millimetres per second. Horizontal movement was slightly faster, the team recorded a speed of 1.6 millimetres per second.
Because of their elastic properties and soft exterior, the diminutive robots can navigate pipes made from several materials of varying textures, including glass, steel and even composites like carbon fibre.
The unique shape-shifting properties of the robot means it can squeeze through sub-centimetre wide pipes and navigate blockages with relative comfort, according to the research notes.
The authors of the paper acknowledge that their design is somewhat flawed. They point out that each worm still needs to be tethered to a fine wire. While initially not a burden, the wire creates drag that prevents the little robot from exploring pipe systems as thoroughly as the researchers believe they’re capable of doing.
The researchers are considering powering each droid with batteries or other small power units so that they can become “untethered and autonomous”.
The endoscopic camera mounted on the worm’s front end will also be re-examined, according to the study. When static or moving at slow speeds, the camera and LED system capture a clear and sharp image. However, when moving closer to its top speed, the image becomes blurry and shaky.
To remedy this, the author suggests incorporating a camera capable of capturing footage at a higher frame rate or building an anti-shake system into the worm’s structure.