Resilient tiny robot takes a swattin' and keeps on walkin'
If swarms of tiny robots are ever going to be used for purposes such as exploring disaster sites, then the things had better be rugged. A bot created at Switzerland's EPFL research institute seems to fit the bill, as it can withstand being squished by a fly swatter.
Weighing less than one gram, the insect-like robot moves via artificial muscles known as integrated dielectric elastomer actuators, or DEAs – hence its name, the DEAnsect.
Each of its three silicone legs contains a DEA, which in turn consists of an elastomer membrane sandwiched between two soft electrodes. When a low-voltage current is applied, the electrodes are drawn toward one another, compressing the membrane. Once the current is shut off, they move back apart, allowing the membrane to expand back to its original thickness.
This switching on and off happens over 400 times per second, causing the DEAs to vibrate the DEAnsect forward at a speed of 3 cm (1.2 in) per second.
There are currently two versions of the device. The first is hard-wired to an external power supply and control system – this is the one that can be flattened by a fly swatter or squashed by a shoe, and then continue on its way (UC Berkeley recently developed a tiny robot with those same bragging rights).
The second version is self-contained, sporting an integrated battery and microcontroller. Utilizing photodiode "eyes," it's able to autonomously track and follow black-and-white patterns printed on the ground.
Its creators are now working on a system that would allow multiple DEAnsects to communicate with one another, so they could coordinate their movements. A completely soft-bodied and self-contained version of the robot is additionally in the works.
The research, which also involved scientists from France's University of Cergy-Pontoise, is described in a paper that was recently published in the journal Science Robotics. You can see some of the DEAnsects in action, in the following video.