Is This Real-Life Dune? Robotic Earthworms May Tunnel Beneath Us

Of all the weird and wonderful technological innovations, this one has got to make the list. In recent years, scientific research has been conducting the development of a robotic earthworm. With a recent breakthrough in the field, it may not be long before this robot is up and running and burrowing beneath our feet.

Earthworms are creatures we may all take for granted, some of us may even feel repulsed by them. But that doesn’t stop them from being an incredibly useful and versatile species.

Due to their unique features earthworms are, among other things, excellent burrowers. These little creatures can stealthily burrow into the earth in a way that machines have, so far, not been able to replicate.

But if machines were able to replicate the physicality of an earthworm, researchers have high hopes that they would be able to create a robot that could be a real asset to several areas including underground infrastructure, tunnelling and navigation.

The Not-So-Humble Earthworm

Whilst many of us may have viewed the humble earthworm with uninterest, the BBC reports that a group of researchers have recognised the unique value of this species.

Elsa Arrázola-Vásquez, a researcher of soil management at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, is just one of the individuals who have recognised the worth of what earthworms could inspire in robotics.

“They [earthworms] are very flexible and move through spaces that might be difficult to access”, she explained. In other words, because earthworms’ bodies allow them to bend and manoeuvre easily, they can move underground in a way that machines cannot.

Earthworms’ abilities to burrow allow them to make tunnels underground. This is beneficial to us and our environment because these tunnels oxygenate the soil, drain water, and create space for plant roots.

However, researchers believe that if they can replicate the movement of an earthworm in machinery, they can develop a robot that could be used for things like installing underground utility infrastructure in a less environmentally damaging and more cost-efficient way.

The People Behind The Robotic Earthworm

Trying to capture the movements of earthworms robotically has been incremental, but there have been several progressive breakthroughs over the years.

For example, researchers have already succeeded in mimicking earthworms’ setae (the bristles they use to anchor themselves) and in copying the fluid segments that help them move.

Now, at the Soft Robotics Group at the Italian Institute of Technology (IIT), the latest advancement in capturing the movement of the earthworm has taken place.

At the IIT, researchers have developed a robot that can bulge in and out at the side whilst it stretches and contracts in length. Riddhi Das is one of the primary mechanical engineers at IIT that has been working on the robot.

Das describes that the design works by using positive and negative pressure to generate the force which is pushed outwards and along the length of the robotic worm, allowing it to expand in two directions. This allows it to create earthworm-type locomotion of contraction and expansion which will move along the robotic body.

The IIT’s soft robot is around the length and weight of a light dumbbell and is filled with gel to allow it to move like an earthworm.

The Significance Of This Breakthrough 

The IIT’s recent breakthrough has already received external praise from others in the field. One such person is Yasemin Ozkan-Aydin, an electrical engineer at the University of Notre Dame in the US.

Professor Ozkan-Aydin has spent years trying to design and build an earthworm-type robot and so understands the difficulties of trying to make this mechanic dream a reality. In fact, she has already worked on four earthworm robot designs to mimic observations she has made of real earthworms.

Professor Ozkan-Aydin has praised the IIT’s breakthrough, describing it as “very important” to the world of robotics. IIT’s innovation is so important because it has achieved a genuinely bioinspired robot – this is a prototype developed with a fundamental understanding of an animal’s biology as opposed to just mimicking its shape.

Of course, the IIT’s robotic earthworm is not an exact replica of the creature it is based on. The robot has a diameter of 4cm and a length of 45cm, making it considerably larger than an actual earthworm.

Nevertheless, as this robot is still much smaller than other tunnelling robots, such as the rugged tunnelling robot developed by GE – a company which is also focused on developing a type of robotic worm – the size of the IIT robot is still considered a success.

What Can We Expect From The Robotic Worm?

As mentioned, there are high hopes that this kind of soft robot will be able to help in installing types of underground utility infrastructure in a way that is less expensive and less environmentally damaging than other kinds of conventional drilling.

“We see a real commercial opportunity for this”, says John Lizzi, leader of the Robotics and Autonomous Systems division at GE research. Lizzi believes that the robotic worm could aid in installing electrical power, fibre internet and charging infrastructure for electrical vehicles.

Furthermore, the US Defence Advanced Research Project Agency believes that the robotic worm will be useful in its tactical tunnelling solutions. GE is currently working alongside the US Department of Defence on how a robotic worm could help in areas of tunnelling and navigation.

Besides these areas, earthworm robots could also be used in areas such as agricultural sensing, planetary excavation, mining, and even search and rescue.

Professor Ozkan-Aydin, whose country of origin is Turkey, has spoken out about the impacts these robotics could have in events such as the recent earthquakes that have devastated her home country. She believes that a tiny burrowing robot with a camera attached would be able to signal to rescue efforts where they should concentrate their forces without disturbing the ground.

So, if any company does finally succeed in developing a fully operational earthworm robot, these could soon be burrowing underground to install the infrastructure and equipment we so desperately need in our overground society. Thanks to IITs latest breakthrough, this kind of less intrusive and more cost-efficient kind of tunnelling may even be happening beneath our very feet someday in the not-too-distant future.