This Tiny Soft Robo-Bug Can Take a Fly-Spatter

Many of the robo-enthusiasts take ideas from Mother Nature. However, replicating the elegance and finesse is a tough job. Still, we’re trying to get close. This tiny insect-like robot is engineered from soft materials and weighs less than a gram.

A Little about Soft-Robotics

Soft robotics is a specific subfield of robotics which constructs robots from highly flexible materials, similar to those found in living organisms.

Soft robotics learns heavily from how organisms move and adapt to their surroundings. Contradicting normal robots that are built from rigid materials, soft robots allow increased flexibility and adaptability for accomplishing tasks and improved safety when working around humans. These characteristics allow for its potential use in the field of medicine and manufacturing.

How does it Work?

It can move quickly and that too with some intelligence and is strong enough to survive a pounding from a fly swatter.

Making such robots come with its compromises, for the most parts, tiny robots like these can move quickly, but only with external power. Or they can navigate intelligently, but only when controlled remotely. Or they’re power efficient but unable to move quickly or intelligently.

The DEAnsect is considered to be made of “dielectric elastomer actuators”, is an attempt to make a robot that unifies locomotion, intelligence, and efficiency into a common package (even if it’s only a little bit of each).

How does it Work?

The Robo-bug has three legs, each of which moves so slightly when an electric current changes the shape of the elastomer they’re made of, pulling the robot forward a tiny bit. This happens at such a high frequency (number of times per second) that the transition is invisible to the naked eye. It gives the impression that the robot is gliding forward at a rate of 0.3 body lengths per second. That’s not much compared to a cockroach or spider. However, it’s pretty great when compared to other self-powered small robots.

The efficiency and strength of these parts is a new milestone for soft robotics, and the DEAnsect is sturdy enough to carry around not just a battery but a little of onboard electronics (amounting to some five times its own 190-milligram weight). The bug can operate with some rudimentary logic, for example, by integrating a tiny optical sensor, the robot can be made to follow a black line; however, it can’t move freely onto a plain surface.

It can endure a bit of abuse such as a swat using a fly swatter. Of course, it needs to be scraped off the floor there first, but it’s very much to the robot’s credit that it can bolt again with no delay afterward.

Naturally, there isn’t this robot can do right now, but it’s a promising accomplishment nevertheless, showing several interesting ways forward in the soft robotics field.

The robot is described in a paper published today in the journal Science Robotics. DEAnsect was created by Xiaobin Ji and Matthias Imboden at EPFL’s  Soft Transducers Laboratory and the rest of their team there.

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