This tiny, soft robo-bug scoots with smarts and survives swats

Nature is a good source of inspiration for roboticists, but it’s rare that nature’s elegance and genius can be replicated in any real way. Still, we’re getting closer. This tiny insect-like robot is made of soft materials and weighs less than a gram, yet can move quickly and with some intelligence — and is robust enough to survive a pounding from a fly swatter.

For the most part, tiny robots like this are compromises. For instance, they can move quickly, but only with external power. Or they can navigate intelligently, but only by being controlled remotely. Or they’re power efficient, but unable to move quickly or intelligently.

The DEAnsect, so called for being made of “dielectric elastomer actuators,” is an attempt to create a robot that combines locomotion, intelligence and efficiency into a single package — even if it’s only a little bit of each.

It moves with three little legs, each of which advances ever 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 many times per second, too fast for us to see, and giving the impression that the robot is sort of gliding forward at a rate of 0.3 body lengths per second. That’s not much compared to a cockroach or spider, but it’s pretty good compared to other self-powered small robots.

The efficiency and sturdiness of these parts is a new record for soft robotics, and the DEAnsect is strong enough to carry around not just a battery but a bit of onboard electronics (amounting to some five times its own 190 milligram weight) that let it operate with some rudimentary logic. For example, by attaching a tiny optical sensor the robot can be made to follow a black line and not stray onto a white surface.

It’s also able to withstand a bit of abuse, fittingly in the form of a fly swatter, as you see in the gif at top. 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 scoot again with no delay afterwards.

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

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

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