Tiny robots move like caterpillars, powered by light

Researchers build soft robots that can walk, climb and push objects

What if robots could be powered by light instead of bulky battery packs or movement-limiting power cables?

That's the scenario that scientists at the University of Warsaw are envisioning.

Researchers have developed a half-inch-long so-called soft robot that mimics the movements of a caterpillar. It's powered by light and controlled by a laser beam, according to the university.

"Designing soft robots calls for a completely new paradigm in their mechanics, power supply and control," said Piotr Wasylczyk, head of the Photonic Nanostructure Facility at the University of Warsaw, in a statement. "We are only beginning to learn from nature and shift our design approaches towards these that emerged in natural evolution."

This micro-robot is designed to move along flat surfaces, climb inclines, carry loads and squeeze through narrow openings.

One of the big challenges of building useful robots is figuring out movement. How do you create a robot that can move easily, balance itself and not use a tremendous amount of energy to do it?

For years now, scientists have been looking to nature for inspiration.

A little over two years ago, for instance, researchers at MIT built an autonomous robot that mimics a fish, moving a robotic tail that enables it to change direction in a fraction of a second.

Other scientists have built a small, flying robot that moves like a jellyfish , while yet others designed small bat-like flying robots .

Researchers at the University of Warsaw went with a soft robot because many creatures, like worms, snails and caterpillars, use their soft bodies to move well in complex environments.

Then they added liquid crystalline elastomers, a hybrid material with elastic properties, to the equation.

This material actually can change shape when illuminated with visible light. Scientists applied the illumination with a laser beam.

By forcing the changes in a particular pattern and at a particular speed, researchers can create what mimics the gait of natural creatures, enabling the robot to walk, climb and even push objects that are 10 times its own mass, according to the university. What if robots could be powered by light instead of bulky battery packs or movement-limiting power cables?

That's the scenario that scientists at the University of Warsaw are envisioning.

Researchers have developed a half-inch-long so-called soft robot that mimics the movements of a caterpillar. It's powered by light and controlled by a laser beam, according to the university.

"Designing soft robots calls for a completely new paradigm in their mechanics, power supply and control," said Piotr Wasylczyk, head of the Photonic Nanostructure Facility at the University of Warsaw, in a statement. "We are only beginning to learn from nature and shift our design approaches towards these that emerged in natural evolution."

This micro-robot is designed to move along flat surfaces, climb inclines, carry loads and squeeze through narrow openings.

One of the big challenges of building useful robots is figuring out movement. How do you create a robot that can move easily, balance itself and not use a tremendous amount of energy to do it?

For years now, scientists have been looking to nature for inspiration.

A little over two years ago, for instance, researchers at MIT built an autonomous robot that mimics a fish, moving a robotic tail that enables it to change direction in a fraction of a second.

Other scientists have built a small, flying robot that moves like a jellyfish , while yet others designed small bat-like flying robots .

Researchers at the University of Warsaw went with a soft robot because many creatures, like worms, snails and caterpillars, use their soft bodies to move well in complex environments.

Then they added liquid crystalline elastomers, a hybrid material with elastic properties, to the equation.

This material actually can change shape when illuminated with visible light. Scientists applied the illumination with a laser beam.

By forcing the changes in a particular pattern and at a particular speed, researchers can create what mimics the gait of natural creatures, enabling the robot to walk, climb and even push objects that are 10 times its own mass, according to the university.

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Sharon Gaudin

Computerworld (US)
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