Nature is a good source of inspiration for robotics, but it is rare that the elegance and genius of nature can be replicated in a real way. Still, we're getting closer. This tiny insect-like robot is made of soft materials and weighs less than a gram. However, it can move quickly and intelligently – and is robust enough to survive the pounding of a fly swatter.
Tiny robots like this are mostly compromises. For example, they can move quickly, but only with external energy. Or they can navigate intelligently, but only by being remotely controlled. Or they are energy efficient, but unable to move quickly or intelligently.
DEAnsect, the so-called "dielectric elastomer actuator", is an attempt to develop a robot that combines locomotion, intelligence and efficiency in a single package – even if it is only a small piece of everyone.
It moves with three small legs, each of which moves slightly forward when an electric current changes the shape of the elastomer it is made of, and pulls the robot forward a little. This happens many times per second, too fast for us to see, and it gives the impression that the robot is sliding forward at a speed of 0.3 body lengths per second. That's not much compared to a cockroach or a spider, but it's pretty good compared to other small self-propelled robots.
The efficiency and robustness of these parts is a new record for soft robotics, and the DEAnsect is strong enough to carry not just a battery, but also a bit of on-board electronics (about five times its own weight of 190 milligrams) Let it work with a rudimentary logic. By attaching a tiny optical sensor, for example, the robot can be made to follow a black line and not to scatter on a white surface.
It also withstands a bit of abuse, in the form of a fly swatter, as you can see in the GIF above. Of course, it has to be scraped off the ground there first, but it is thanks to the robot that it can then scoot again without delay.
Of course, a robot like this cannot do much at the moment, but it is still a promising achievement that shows a number of interesting possibilities in the field of soft robotics.
DEAnsect was created by Xiaobin Ji and Matthias Imboden in the Soft Transducers Laboratory at EPFL and the rest of their team there. The robot is described in an article published today in the journal Science Robotics.