Insect-scale robots, inspired by the remarkable capabilities of insects, hold immense potential in addressing a variety of challenges in fields ranging from search and rescue to environmental monitoring. These diminutive robots are designed to mimic the size and agility of insects, allowing them to navigate complex and confined spaces that are often inaccessible to their larger robotic counterparts or humans. The applications for insect-scale robots are vast, including tasks such as exploring disaster-stricken areas, inspecting infrastructure, and collecting data in hazardous environments.
However, the development of these tiny robots poses a formidable set of challenges. One of the primary hurdles lies in the design and implementation of effective actuators that can operate efficiently at such a small scale. Traditional actuators, which may work well in larger robotic systems, often struggle to maintain the required precision, speed, and power in insect-scale devices. This limitation significantly hampers the mobility and functionality of these robots, hindering their ability to traverse the types of challenging terrains that are encountered in real-world scenarios.
Up, up, and away! (📷: University of Illinois)
Due to these constraints, insect-scale robots often find themselves confined to controlled laboratory environments where conditions are optimized for their operation. The intricacies of natural environments, such as uneven surfaces, obstacles, and varying terrains, present considerable obstacles that these miniature robots still struggle to overcome. Future robots may not share these same constraints, however, thanks to the work of engineers at the Kinetic Materials Research Group of the University of Illinois. They have developed a microrobot that leverages bio-inspired materials to perform long jumps that can propel it through even very difficult terrain.
Weighing in at just 0.216 grams, this robot would not be able to produce sufficient energy for lengthy jumps using existing actuator technologies. But by using the team’s artificial muscles, it can leap more than 60 times its body length in horizontal distance.
While the design is relatively simple, it is incredibly effective. The body of the microrobot is made from a lightweight elastomer, and the artificial muscles that produce the force to propel it into the air are made from coiled-up nylon fishing line that was given a heat treatment. The elastic qualities of the body itself allow it to store energy that also contributes to the jumping motion when it is released. A latch-triggering mechanism connected to the artificial muscles is used to initiate a jump. The four legs of the robot are connected by a linkage that was inspired by the locust, which is an excellent jumper in its own right.
By utilizing a high-speed, projection additive manufacturing technique, the robots can be produced quickly and inexpensively. In fact, the team tested over 100 versions of their design on their way to finding the best performing system.
The researchers envision swarms of these robots, instrumented with sensors, being put to work for all manner of tasks in agriculture and maintenance. Their ability to reach areas that humans, and other robots, cannot would be a great asset. Towards that goal, the team is presently working to find more efficient designs that maximize battery life and performance.