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News, Technology

Robots, Inspired by Bugs

Abhinav Raj

Abhinav Raj, Writer
@uxconnections

Miniaturized robots developed by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh is a sizeable development in the science of small robots.

Insect-inspired robots developed by the researchers at the University of Pittsburgh can squeeze through cracks and crevices to find what you’re looking for. 

Engineers at the University’s Swanson School of Engineering have created ‘sub-gram’ miniature bots the size of a few millimetres that can navigate even on the sand and slippery surfaces. 

The research is described in a paper published online by the university in the Advanced Materials Technologies journal.

“These robots could be used to access confined areas for imaging or environmental evaluation, take water samples, or perform structural evaluations,” explained Junfeng Gao, the first author of the study and a PhD student in industrial engineering at the Swanson School of Engineering.

“Anywhere you want to access confined places—where a bug could go but a person could not—these machines could be useful.”

The light-weight actuator arms of the robot allow for its locomotion. (Image: Swanson School of Engineering)

Inspired by the motion of fleas and ants, the robot moves not by crawling on the surface but by storing potential energy in the polymeric actuator legs. Through bursts of impulsive actuator movements, the miniature robot is propelled forward—similar to the movement of a cricket. 

“The curved composite shape of the polymer muscle allows it to build energy when it is powered. The way the molecules are aligned in the muscle draws inspiration from the natural world, where their combined actuation builds energy into the structure,” explicates Mohsen Tabrizi, the co-author of the study and a PhD candidate at the university. 

“This is accomplished using no more than a few volts of electricity.”

Miniature robots can open a window to a lesser-known realm of the world. Whether it’s a colony of ants or a hive of bees—a lot remains unexplored about the critters that live alongside us.

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