A swarm of tiny snail robots stick together to form new structures

Researchers have built a swarm of miniature, snail-inspired robots, minus all the slime. Instead, a retractable suction cup works in conjunction with the remote-controlled machine's tank-like steps to maneuver over difficult terrain as well as over each other.

Biomimicry is nothing new within the field of robotics. But while many water and flying examples can navigate three-dimensional environments, that's often not the case for bots that are relegated to walking, crawling, or rolling on the ground. Determined to find a possible solution, roboticists from the Chinese University of Hong Kong looked to shelled gastropods for their design features.

The result, recently described in Nature communication, is a group of snailbots that can work together when an environment becomes too difficult for a single explorer. Each rubber tread system contains small magnets, above which the electronics, battery, microprocessor and other components are housed in a custom-made metal 'helmet'. In 'free mode' the robots move over a surface, just like a traditional tank or bulldozer. But when the going gets tough and it's time to swap responsibilities, the team turns on their snail bot's “strong mode.”

[Related: Why animals run faster than their robot doppelgängers… for now ]

The angle of each machine's magnetic tread chain allows each slugbot to climb the metal shell of a fellow swarmmate. Once in place, a human controller turns on 'strong mode' to place the vacuum suction cup from the top bot to the shell below. This anchors the robot, allowing the overall bot team to iterate as needed. As an added benefit, the robots can rotate 360 ​​degrees while the suction cup remains attached. During test runs, the machines successfully created stairs to clear ledges, constructed bridges to span gaps similar to army ants, and even formed a single, elongated robotic arm.

Suction cup underside of snail robot
Each robot can rotate 360 ​​degrees around its placed suction cup. Chinese University of Hong Kong

“The emphasis on the field mobility of the single robot ensures the flexibility and agility of the overall system,” the team explains in their paper. “Additionally, the integration of a robust connection mechanism becomes crucial, ensuring that when the robot swarm assembles into a cohesive unit, it achieves increased robustness.”

[Related: Boston Dynamics gives Spot bot a furry makeover.]

Researchers believe the underlying principles of their new design could be used to deploy similar bots in real-world situations, such as search and rescue missions and other potentially dangerous environments. There may even come a time when we see space snail bots exploring asteroids, moons, or other planets. But before that, designers plan to develop new iterations that are completely autonomous, allowing them to communicate, plan and build with each other.

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