Nature is a great platform to draw inspiration from when building robots, although replicating biological mechanics over to synthetic versions often does not translate so well, meaning those robotic systems can only mimic certain or partial aspects of nature’s design.
Scientists from EPFL (Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne) have overcome some of those biological/mechanical limitations by developing a soft robotic insect that utilizes artificial muscles for movement, and is robust enough to be twisted, bent, squeezed, and fly-swatted, but retain functionality.
The DEAnsect low-power soft robot is 4cm in length, weighs less than 1g, and moves along at a steady 3cm/s. The researchers designed the robot using dielectric elastomer actuators (DEAs), which drive three tiny legs (front, left, and right) forward or backward at 450 times per second (faster than the eye can see). When the artificial muscle expands, it pushes the robot forward, but when it contracts, it only slides back at a fraction of the forward movement, allowing it travel in those directions without “Moon Walking” in place.
The DEAs supply drive voltage via a Li-polymer onboard battery to power the DEAnsect, which operates at 450V and more than 600Hz. Flexible and lightweight electronics enabled the team to outfit the DEAnsect with sensors (photodiodes), SWCNT (Single-Walled Carbon Nanotube) electrodes, and a microcontroller, which offers a finite state machine structure for feedback control. This provides the robot with limited autonomous navigation utilizing light or darkness environments.
The researchers state that they designed the DEAnsect as a proof-of-concept robotic platform to show that artificial muscles when combined with low-mass electronics, allow for untethered autonomous walking robots.