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Caterpillars’ ups and downs provide insight into soft robot technology.

Illustration by Shuang Wu

Entomologists have long been captivated by the caterpillar’s allure. Its exotic coloring. Its cocoons. And of course, its mysterious transformation into a butterfly. But NC State engineers looked at something much more basic in the inchy crawler — how it moves.

The researchers studied the caterpillar’s curvature as it moves to and fro to inform the design of a soft robot that users can control to move forward, backward and slide through small openings, like under a door.

One might say the design is straight fire. “We’ve drawn inspiration from the caterpillar’s biomechanics to mimic that local curvature, and use nanowire heaters to control similar curvature and movement in the caterpillar-bot,” says Yong Zhu, Andrew A. Adams Distinguished Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and researcher on the project.

Sending electric current through those nanowires, users can move the soft robot by expanding a top layer of polymer with heat and contracting the bottom layer.

The application for caterpillar-bots is still being conceived, but researchers see a future for their use in the field of search and rescue.

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