Clemson professor conducts research on continuum robots

March 20, 2013

Ian Walker, Ph.D.
credit: Ian Walker

by Laura Hicks

Ian Walker, professor of electrical and computer engineering at Clemson University, has always had a strong interest in biology. Specifically, he has always wondered what it would take to make a robot that could emulate invertebrate “trunks and tentacles.” After 20+ years of research, they are still only scratching the surface of what could be created.

The focus of Walker’s research is looking into developing robots that, instead of having rigid “links and joints” as in our own arms and legs, have smooth profiles like elephant trunks and octopus arms. These “continuum robots” can bend anywhere, as well as maybe extend and contract in length. For the space-related NASA work, he is looking for ways to make very long and thin continuum robots, like robot ropes. These robots could enter and navigate hard-to-reach places like crevasses in rocks and underground cavities.

“Continuum robots are beginning to be used in minimally invasive medical procedures as active endoscopes and in keyhole surgeries. They are also applicable to various manufacturing and military situations, and for search and rescue in disaster relief,” said Walker.

In order to conduct this research, they use a mix of novel design methods and math to model and control the robots. The tentative findings are that it will be possible, though hard, to make these new kinds of robots work. Ahead in this research are more versatile, thinner and more powerful “trunk and tentacle” robots.

Walker received the B.S. in mathematics from the University of Hull, England, in 1983 and M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in electrical and computer engineering from the University of Texas at Austin in 1985 and 1989, respectively. He then joined the faculty in electrical and computer engineering at Rice University, where he served until 1997. In the fall of 1997, he joined the department of electrical and computer engineering at Clemson University, where he became a full Professor in 2001.

For media inquiries, please contact Brian Mullen at or 864-656-2063.

Links for further reading:

Ian Walker: Bio, selected papers and videos

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