Watch any kid play with a tape measure and you’ll understand where researchers from the Seoul National University of Science and Technology found the inspiration for their new chameleon-like robot that can snag objects with its artificial tongue over 30 inches away in less than 600 milliseconds.
Snatcher, as the robot’s called, wasn’t just inspired by tape measures. If you look closely the tongue part that shoots out and retracts is the metal ruler salvaged from an actual tape measure because of its ability to neatly roll up very quickly. The rest of the robo-chameleon weighs in at less than 120 grams and features a custom wind-up spring-powered mechanism with a special clutch that can quickly alternate between powering a gear that extends the long metal tongue and a gear that retracts it.
The results are analogous to how a chameleon’s tongue works, although Mother Nature’s approach is more refined and far more accurate than this prototype. In its current form, the tongue features a simple hook on the end allowing it to grab and retract objects around 30 grams—so relatively lightweight—in the blink of an eye. The world doesn’t necessarily need artificial chameleons, there are more than enough of the real thing running around, but the researchers envision their creation being used on devices like drones to extend their reach for object retrieval that might otherwise be hindered or limited by the spinning propellers.
Given its compact size, the creators of the Snatcher device also think it could be a useful tool for those with dealing with physical challenges, or who rely on a mobility device and as a result, have a limited reach. The simple hook on the end of the tongue the prototype uses isn’t necessarily ideal for this purpose as objects can be easily dropped. But the researchers are looking into upgrading it with a gripper that would securely close once making contact with a target, maintaining its grasp until fully retracted.