Researchers from the Eindhoven University of Technology have designed a tiny plastic robot using responsive polymers that can move using light and magnetism. According to the team, these robots could be used to attract and capture contaminant particles from water, or be used to transport cells for diagnostic testing.
The wireless aquatic robot was inspired by nature, specifically coral polyps — small and soft organisms that group together as a single organism to build coral reefs. The 1 x 1cm robots feature a stem that reacts, or moves, under the influence of a rotating magnet at its base, which generates a current in the surrounding water, allowing the robot to move and attract contaminate (or other) particles.
The robot’s tentacles were designed using a photomechanical polymer material that responds to different wavelengths of light. When subjected to UV light, the tentacles curl to perform a “grabbing” motion, while a wavelength in the blue spectrum causes them to unfurl back to their original orientation. In one experiment, the researchers highlighted the capabilities of the polyp-inspired robots by having them grab droplets of oil within a sample of water, a difficult operation for both robots and humans. They also demonstrated the robots could maintain new shapes via prolonged UV light. The researchers are continuing to develop the bio-inspired robots and hope to create a fleet that can work together to transport different particles using teamwork, passing them from one robot to another.