This Robot Leaves a Trail of Slime

By Elizabeth Svoboda|Wednesday, December 03, 2003

Roboticists seeking inspiration from nature have built mechanical analogues of dogs, fish, lobsters, and cockroaches. Researchers at MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering have taken this biomimetic tradition to an unlikely extreme, crafting a robot inspired by the humble snail.

Courtesy of Donna Coveney/MIT

MIT undergraduate Catherine Koveal, a member of the RoboSnail team, demonstrates the robot's creepy propulsion.

The creation—called RoboSnail, of course—consists of an electronic directional mechanism mounted atop a six-inch-long rubber “foot.” Real snails secrete mucus, which they push backward to create a pressure gradient that propels them forward. RoboSnail creates a similar thrust by inching along a slightly less distasteful film of silicon oil. Mechanical engineer Anette Hosoi says imitating the snails’ mode of locomotion could inspire versatile machines. “Snails are mechanically simple—they have one foot, so you don’t have to make a walking robot—and they’re very stable,” she says. “They can also negotiate all kinds of complex topologies.”

A future version of RoboSnail will be designed to scale walls and ceilings. The robotic snail also demonstrates how fluid behaves when contained by a flexible boundary (the snail’s foot), so it could be useful for studying how blood flows through veins. Although marketable applications for RoboSnail are years away, Hosoi already has one idea in mind: “If I needed to clean my ceiling, I might send it up there to crawl around.”

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