A soft robot has been talked about since March 2020 developed by the UC Santa Barbara research team. It was based on three robotic concepts – soft robotics, truss robotics, and collective robotics which created capabilities of untethered movement in a human environment. Now the group presses forward with their new version of the soft robot that can burrow through the sand.

The idea was born from the observation of the networking of plants and burrowing animals in subterranean environments. The high point of the soft burrowing robot is its fast and accurate minimally invasive movement underground. The mechanics of this soft burrowing robot will pave the way for newer types of robots.

So the team of researchers created a soft robot that mimicked the vine of a plant with a growing tip that navigates, the body remaining stationary. The friction on the surface is minimal with the growing extension.

Another strategy is inspired by burrowing animals especially the southern sand octopus, is granular fluidization. The sand octopus shoots jets of water into the sand to loosen it and pulls itself into the loosened sand. This process that excavates sand, eliminates the high level of resistance brought forth from the friction of sand. Also, the sandfish lizard’s wedge-shaped head with its downward movement, helped researchers to modulate resisting forces that helped keep the robot moving without any sand rising.

The shallow soft burrowing robot has the potential through granular media to operate in soil sampling, underground instillations of utilities, and erosion control. It has a high level of behavioral diversity and bio-inspiration. It is of less weight and cost and can tolerate low speed, accuracy, and force application. For human-machine interactions, it can tolerate operation in unknown environments. Flexible and stretchable electronics and power sources give it an edge over hard robots.

In the subterranean world, the soft burrowing robot can inspire new studies on animals. Tip extensions make direction changes simple while the body remains anchored, a capability that enables extraterrestrial robotics in low gravity areas. NASA is working on using this capability for burrowing for the moon and distant bodies like Enceladus, a moon of Jupiter.