Copying the humble snail.

Scientists replicate snail-like locomotion in robot

The snail makes an out-of-sync movement which creates a waveform across the foot.

Scientists replicate snail-like locomotion in robot

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Snails are molluscs. Hence, they don’t have legs because of their ancestry. When molluscs arose about 500 million years ago, they crawled along the seafloor on a ventral foot. To date, many of their descendants, including snails, still move the same way.

The only descendants that have evolved are the cephalopods like the squids and octopuses. However, even this group is still in the sea, most likely because they do not have a skeleton.

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While some snails have evolved from living in the water to the land, they are still molluscs, and hence, lack legs. Snails tend to drag their body on the floor, but this is not a locomotive process as it doesn’t aid movement in any form.

Instead, they move by gliding along their muscular foot, which extends from their shell. This provides foot locomotion from the ventral side. The excretion of mucus and epithelial cilia lubricates foot locomotion. 

The snail transfers propulsive force from a foot to the ground with a thin layer of mucus secretion. This fascinating movement method caught the eye of a group of researchers. Hence, they decided to replicate this in a robot. 

Saravana Prashanth Murali Babu and some of his colleagues at the University of Southern Denmark decided to build a version of a snail’s single large, soft foot. They aimed to use this as the basis of a robot that moves like a snail.

There are detailed studies on the chemical properties of snail mucus by different research groups. However, there is not much study on how the snail’s ventral foot moves. The only available material on this movement is hypotheses based on the observations of biologists. 

Experimenting with snail-like movement

During his presentation, Saravana explained the team’s thought process when recreating the snail movement. The team chose to build the foot from a soft material that small pneumatic pumps could inflate in segments.

Precious studies proposed that parts of a snail’s foot hit the ground, then detach before hitting it again. This movement done out of sync creates a waveform across the foot, enabling the snail to glide forward on its mucus.

Saravana’s team replicated this wave motion in their experimental robot, capable of excreting mucus. Their test was successful as they saw the robot move forward and make turns without falling over. The team is still performing experiments on the robot but is feeling positive about the results so far. 

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According to Saravana, the team’s final goal is to make the robot’s inflatable foot even softer. They intend to make the robot even more similar to snails, whose bodies are mostly made of water. This innovation could inform the design of soft medical robots that could move inside the body which contains abundant mucus.

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