The snail trail

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 June, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 June, 2009, 12:00am

The typical robot has a tin-can Terminator quality. Tap it with a hammer and it will ding or clang like a bell. But there is no higher force that decrees robots must be clunky metallic machines. So why should they not be soft and supple - squishy even?

Welcome to the touchy-feely world of the sublimely named, if slightly icky, SquishBot, shorthand for Soft QUIet SHape-shifting robot.

The development of the SquishBot is part of a joint project between the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Robotic Mobility Group in the United States and engineering firm Boston Dynamics, best-known for designing the BigDog quadruped robot in 2005.

Boston Dynamics is responsible for the final design and delivery of the SquishBot. One aim of the project is to conjure up systems that can mutate from hard to soft, and vice versa, when ordered. Another is to churn out systems that can dramatically alter their critical dimensions - by a factor of as much as 10. Either way, representatives of the SquishBot race will apparently resemble soft animals that can squeeze through narrow apertures and slime their way into tight corners.

If you are stumped as to what inspired this bizarre exercise in cybernetics, look no further than the blobby bugs emerging from your window box. A SquishBot moves around by operating on principles of locomotion gleaned from the study of slugs, snails and other molluscs. By secreting a skinny slick of fluid that spreads between its bendy body, which acts like a foot, and the ground, a SquishBot can inch across a range of terrains, even climb sheer surfaces and cling upside down on ceilings.

Like most weird inventions, the SquishBot appears to have a precedent in science-fiction movies. For example, it resembles The Blob - a 1958 independently made horror flick about a giant amoeba-like alien that terrorises a small community.

Innovation consultant Jeff Lindsay casts SquishBot as an extension of the concept of smart polymers, pioneered by the late MIT physics professor Toyoichi Tanaka, who developed gels that respond to changes in their environment. Lindsay believes the SquishBot could lead to more elegant, smaller structures with many new possibilities in an area that is 'ripe for further innovation and collaboration'.

Despite publicity that focuses on nightmarish and sensational potential applications, SquishBots may prove most valuable in mundane tasks such as repairing electrical wiring and fixing plumbing. The SquishBot may mimic slugs but it has at least one key advantage over nature: resistance to salt.

US-based inventor and innovation consultant Michael Plishka sees potential in the SquishBot, saying it is 'definitely doable'. The materials and mechanisms for the internal 'skeleton' effectively already exist, he says. 'But some serious optimisation needs to be done,' says Plishka. He adds that the propulsion side may be the hardest thing to perfect from a commercialisation standpoint.

Plishka estimates the final product could, optimistically, be ready in four to five years.

'Perhaps the bot could move more like a snake as opposed to a snail but then it couldn't stick to ceilings as well,' says Plishka. He expects that tradeoffs in body shape and locomotion techniques will determine how quickly we see the little monsters squeezing under our doors.