At the bottom of ponds, nematodes and other creatures swim in a world of mud. They squirm their way through a sediment of dirt particles suspended in water. Mud, of course, is notoriously impossible to see through, so to understand these creatures’ movements, scientists turn instead to biorobotics. Here, a team uses a magnetic head attached to an elastic tail to mimic these tiny creatures.
To drive the robot’s motion, they use an oscillating magnetic field, which forces the magnetic head to rotate. Combined with the elastic tail and the drag caused by surrounding materials, this causes the robot to swim in a fashion similar to its biological inspirations.
To mimic the muddy environment of a pond’s bottom, scientists used a bed of hydrogel beads immersed in water. Looking at the experimental video above, you’ll see no sign of the beads. That’s because the hydrogel beads have nearly the same index of refraction as water. Once you pour water in, they seem to disappear. That allows the researchers to focus instead on the robot’s motion. In other experiments, they added dye to the beads so that they could see how they moved around the robot.
They found that the robot’s motion fluidizes the grains around it. Effectively, the robot’s motion creates an area with fewer grains and more water for it to move through. Once it’s passed, however, more grains settle in, and the bed returns to a denser packing. (Image credit: nematode – P. Garcelon, experiment – A. Biswas et al.; research credit: A. Biswas et al.)