Researchers Develop Soft Robots Capable of Catching Flies

Johannes Kepler University scientists created bots made of soft materials that are able to react using weak magnetic fields to move quickly.

Cabe Atwell
16 days agoRobotics
When approaching magnetic tweezes, the six-arm robot self-grips without damaging the flower’s structure. It also grabs, transports, and releases nanomagnetic objects such as a polyurethane foam cube controlled by a magnet. (📷: Communications Materials 2020)

Researchers at JKU’s Department of Soft Matter Physics and the LIT Soft Materials Lab are developing robots made of soft materials that are able to react using weak magnetic fields to move quickly. It’s also capable of grabbing a swift-moving fly that has just landed on top of it. While building these types of soft-material based systems, there is usually an idea to create conducive conditions that support close-robot human interactions in the future. This would need to be achieved without the robot harming a human.

Scientists demonstrated a new electromagnetic motor approach, using elastic materials and liquid metal to form the actuator instead of copper wire and iron. Additionally, the researchers presented a new type of elastic and flexible bio-gel that’s stable enough to be coupled with electronic materials to build a new type of soft robot. Now, the team is aiming to take the development one step further. However, it had one drawback: it wasn’t able to change shape very quickly. Their idea is based on using flexible plastic polydimethylsiloxane and mixing magnetic microparticles like an alloy of neodymium, iron and boron.

The small, soft robots also had various shapes, which were able to move differently when exposed to a magnetic field that changes in their surroundings. These movements were all dependant on the shape, where the microparticles were positioned, and the materials’ thickness. The actuators, weighing just a few micrograms and measuring a few micrometers thin, requires minimal energy to move. Even more impressive is that the components can move repetitively millions of times without any modifications.

Influencing and altering the magnetic field enabled the scientists to develop tiny robots that are capable of hovering, swimming and walking. These flower-shaped robots were also able to snatch a fly that landed on it. Scientists say this opens up new opportunities to develop soft robots that are able to move very fast. Long term, the idea is to create complex mini-robots that could have medical field applications. For example, they could unclog blood vessels in humans. Though, to accomplish this, the materials need to be biodegradable and easily controlled.

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