Plate of cooked spaghettiBerkeley professor studied how spaghetti reacts to water. (Photo by Christine Sandu/Unsplash)

Is spaghetti the key to building a better robot?

Studying how spaghetti reacts to water might offer clues to how robots built from flexible materials can better mimic human movement, according to Oliver O'Reilly, professor of mechanical engineering.

January 22, 2020

Look at some spaghetti and you might think lunch. When Oliver O’Reilly looks at spaghetti, he thinks about the future of robotics.

Pasta and robots might not seem like natural bedfellows, but O’Reilly, a UC Berkeley professor of mechanical engineering, hopes his research can help engineers construct better models and designs for soft robots.

In a paper recently published in Physical Review E, O’Reilly and graduate student Nathaniel Goldberg constructed a model that shows how the shape of spaghetti changes after placed in water.

Studying the distortions offers lessons in how robots made from soft, flexible materials like rubber or silicon react to different temperatures, surfaces and objects. From that information, researchers can develop models and designs for soft robots that can better mimic the complex movements of living organisms in a variety of environments.

For example, hospitals are increasingly using robots to assist doctors in surgeries. To be effective, these surgical robots need to pick up and grip sensitive instruments and tools.

“We want a more bio-compatible, more gentle robot,” O’Reilly said.

Water transforms dry pasta from a stiff rod to a malleable noodle that bends and curls. So O’Reilly and Goldberg designed and built an experiment in which they submerged a single strand of spaghetti in a pot filled with room temperature water and then closely measured the changes in the rod over two hours.

Specifically, O’Reilly wanted to see how the spaghetti changed after it came into contact with the pot. The strand swelled, softened and developed an intrinsic curvature as it ultimately collapsed onto itself and did not return to its original shape.

From pasta to more lifelike robots

One of the greatest challenges to soft robotics is predicting how different environments will impact the movement of robots made from easily pliable matter like fluids, gels and polymers.

That’s why “spaghetti is a brilliant test case” for soft robots, because pasta represents a much simpler version of what happens when materials from robots touch other surfaces, O’Reilly said.

Soft robotics is a growing field of study. Research firm Mordor Intelligence estimates the market for soft robots will hit nearly $5 billion in 2025 compared to $645 million last year, a compound annual growth rate of 40.5 percent.

The technology offers promising opportunities, especially in healthcare.

“Soft robots inherently have the advantage of being compliant with the natural tissues of human and living organisms,” the Mordor report said. “Minimally invasive surgery is one of the research areas with the big potential of adopting soft robotics.”

O’Reilly has a knack for finding the extraordinary out of the ordinary. In 2017, O’Reilly, working with graduate students Christine Gregg and Christopher Daily-Diamond, attracted considerable international attention for their study on how shoelaces become untied, research that might lead to better surgical knots, among other uses.

Focusing on simple things like shoelaces and spaghetti strands “work as stepping stones to much more complicated things,” O’Reilly said. “It forces you to think about things differently.”

Did O’Reilly learn anything else from the spaghetti experiment?

“Yes,” he said. “Eating spaghetti cold after two hours is not a pleasant experience.”