Caterpillar Crawl Could Inspire Robots Design

As worms move, so might robots

Scientists scrutinize their locomotion with an eye toward making soft-bodied mechanical beings for sophisticated tasks in tough spots

Tufts University researchers are studying tobacco hornworm caterpillars for clues about how to build robots inspired by nature.

[...] a paper published online in Current Biology described the use of powerful X-rays of a caterpillar crawling on a treadmill to reveal that, bizarrely, a caterpillar’s innards thrust forward before the rest of its body when it crawls, perhaps helping it to move.

Discovery News 

Caterpillars Move Guts-First

  • Caterpillars crawl using a "two-body" system of locomotion never seen before.
  • Caterpillar guts slide forward before other parts of the insect move.
  • This form of locomotion is inspiring new designs for soft-bodied robots.

Caterpillars move gut-first, new X-ray research shows.

Trimmer Laboratory for Neurobiology and Neuromechanics


The neural control of soft-bodied locomotion

Most of our understanding of animal movements is based on creatures with stiff skeletons such as humans, dogs, birds and cockroaches. However many animals do not have hard skeletons and we know relatively little about how they control their bodies. Our model system is the caterpillar, Manduca sexta which does not have joints to restrict movements. They can crumple, compress and rotate body parts with virtually unlimited freedom. We are trying to understand how the nervous system interacts with tissues to controls these complex movements.

Using these findings we are also designing and building new types of flexible robots. The challenge is to create a comprehensive set of engineering tools so that soft materials can be controlled reliably in any moving device.

This is new field of Soft Material Robotics. Such robots could be used to navigate through pipelines or intricate structures such as blood vessels and air tubes. Learn more >

Visceral-Locomotory Pistoning in Crawling Caterpillars

Current Biology, 22 July 2010


Michael A. Simonsend, William A. Woods, Yevgeniy V. Serebrenik, Sharotka M. Simon, Linnea I. van Griethuijsen, John J. Socha, Wah-Keat Lee, Barry A. Trimmer

  • The gut in crawling Manduca sexta caterpillars moves independently of the body wall
  • This visceral-locomotory pistoning offers evidence for a nonlinear elastic gut
  • This two-bodied biomechanical system is a novel finding in animal locomotion

As worms move, so might robots - The Boston Globe
YouTube - Science Nation - Creeping, Crawling Caterpillars
Caterpillars Move Guts-First : Discovery News
Trimmer Laboratory: Neurobiology and Neuromechanics - Tufts University
YouTube - Visceral-Locomotory Pistoning in Crawling Caterpillars
Current Biology - Visceral-Locomotory Pistoning in Crawling Caterpillars

Trimmer Laboratory: Neurobiology and Neuromechanics - Tufts University
Caterpillar Crawl Could Inspire New Robots | Science and Technology | English
Gut Check: How Do Caterpillars Walk? : NPR
Gut movements in caterpillars inspire soft-body robot design (w/ Video)
Observatory - New Insight Into a Caterpillar’s Crawl - NYTimes.com
How Did the Caterpillar Cross the Road?