In the realm of robotics, designing insect-like bots has been a formidable challenge due to their small size. These miniature robots hold potential applications in environmental pollination, search and rescue missions, and beyond. Drawing inspiration from nature, researchers at Washington State University recently unveiled remarkable progress in this field at the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society’s International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems.

Presenting two groundbreaking creations—a mini-bug weighing a mere eight milligrams and a water strider tipping the scales at 55 milligrams—the researchers showcased robots that can move at an impressive six millimeters per second. While this speed might seem modest, it marks a significant milestone and positions these robots as some of the fastest of their kind.

The key innovation lies in the development of extraordinarily small actuators, essential components in robotics, automotive technology, and aerospace systems. Dr. Néstor O. Pérez-Arancibia, Flaherty Associate Professor in Engineering at WSU’s School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, spearheaded the project. The researchers utilized a specialized fabrication technique to create actuators that are both compact and swift.

At the heart of these actuators is a material known as a shape memory alloy. This innovative material possesses the ability to “remember” a specific shape and effortlessly returns to that shape when subjected to changes in temperature. Unlike traditional actuators with engines and moving parts, these actuators rely on the shape memory alloy, heated by minimal electrical currents, to emulate a wing-flapping motion. Impressively, the robots demonstrated the capability to flap their wings 40 times per second, with actuators lifting 150 times their weight.

“The actuators are the smallest and fastest ever developed for micro-robotics,” affirmed Dr. Pérez-Arancibia, emphasizing the mechanical robustness of these creations. According to Trygstad, the researcher behind the specialized fabrication technique, this breakthrough unlocks new possibilities in the realm of micro-robotics.

Looking ahead, the researchers aim to explore the development of autonomous robots capable of moving independently, without an external power supply. This crucial next step involves the integration of small batteries or catalytic combustion, paving the way for the practical deployment of these innovative micro-bots.

By Impact Lab