Research makes big leap for insect-inspired robots

Insect-inspired robots that work in hard-to-reach spaces and inhospitable environments were developed at the University of Pittsburgh.

Junfeng Gao, who led the project as a PhD student in industrial engineering at Swanson School of Engineering, said the insect-inspired robots could be used to access confined spaces for imaging or environmental assessment, take water samples or perform structural assessments. to feed.

“Wherever you want to have access to confined places — where a bug can get to but a person can’t — these machines can be useful,” Gao said in a statement.

For many creatures under a certain size — trap-jaw ants, mantis shrimp, and fleas — jumping over a surface is more energy-efficient than crawling. Those impulsive movements were mimicked in the robots, which are made from a polymeric artificial muscle.


“It’s like loading an arrow into a bow and shooting it – the robots cling to build energy, then release it in an impulsive burst to jump forward,” says M. Ravi Shankar , professor of industrial engineering at Pitt whose lab led the research. “Usually the activation in the artificial muscles we work with is quite slow. We were drawn to the question, ‘How do we take this artificial muscle and use it to generate a jumping motion rather than a slow activation?’ ”

According to the team, the interplay of molecular ordering and geometry provided the solution.

“The curving composite shape of the polymer muscle allows it to build energy when powered. The way the molecules in the muscle align takes inspiration from the natural world, where their combined activation builds energy into the structure,” says Mohsen Tabrizi, study co-author and PhD student in industrial engineering at Swanson School. “This is accomplished with no more than a few volts of electricity.”

Thanks to its versatile movement and lightweight structure, the robots – which are about the size of a cricket – can move over moving surfaces such as sand as easily as hard surfaces, and even jump over water.

The team’s findings are detailed in a paper entitled “Molecularly Directed, Geometrically Latched, Impulsive Actuation Powers Sub-Gram Scale Motility,” published in Advanced Material Technologies

Abhishek Maheswari
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