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What Can Innovative "Soft Robots" Offer Architecture? [VIDEO]

The last few years have seen the rise of "soft robots," squirming, biomorphic, and highly flexible little machines that can be used to slip through cracks, infiltrate tight spaces, even explore architectural ruins in the wake of earthquakes and warfare.

But soft robots are also getting closer to becoming what are, in effect, mechanically agile medical devices that can "monitor your insides," in the words of Sangbae Kim, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, as reprinted by Popular Science, sneaking around inside your body like an earthworm.

The so-called "meshworm" is exactly that: a robotic "worm" made from layered wire mesh that uses "nickel-titanium alloy for muscles." The application of a high temperature "shortens the wire, tightens the spring's coil, and squeezes that body segment." Thus, "when a segment contracts, the one behind it stretches out, and the robot inches forward. The tendon also has muscles attached so the robot can turn left or right."

The result is the oddly grotesque and somewhat phallic creeping machine you see in the short video, above. The idea is that this could be used for medical diagnosis or vascular surgery.

However, the architectural or broadly spatial uses of this technology are also worth considering, including the potential for monumentally scaled-up versions of the meshworm, capable of assisting human or material transport through the built environment—a kind of peristaltic package-delivery tube that could replace the much-discussed pneumatic tubes of an earlier urban era. Like something out of a David Cronenberg film, the city would have a kind of giant bowel-infrastructure distributing waste material from point to point.

More interestingly, though, this new class of soft robots and meshworms could quickly assume their roles as architectural explorers in their own right, burrowing through collapsed buildings, passing beneath or around doors, even being taken up by the more ambitious burglars and tactical operations teams of the world.

Or, for example, earlier this month in the cave state of Kentucky, the annual "Cave City Hamfest" explored how to bring radio transmission deep underground. This was "accomplished by placing handheld (relay capable) walkie-talkies or relay boxes along a cave passage." "After the inital debugging phase, we demonstrated the ability to simply walk the cave, until data was lost and then backing up a few feet for a solid link. Then placing a radio on a convenient rock and continuing." Taking this as our cue, we could simply wire-up a team of meshworms with radio repeaters and send a small, crawling team of spelunking robots far ahead of us into caves where no human body can fit; they would crawl until they lose a signal, move back a few feet to re-establish a secure feed, and then the next one squirms dutifully forward.

You've thus built a mobile, semi-autonomous, deep-earth radio network made from repurposed medical devices—equal parts cave-mapping expedition and subterranean pirate radio station—opening up whole new realms of underground exploration (and tactical media).