Shape Programmable Matter is More Magnetic Magic

How could you build an artificial tadpole? Or simulate the motion of a cilium? Those would be hard to do with mechanical means — even micromechanical because of their fluid motion. Researchers have been studying shape-programmable matter:¬†materials that can change shape based on something like heat or magnetic field. However, most research in this area has relied on human intuition and trial and error to get the programmed shape correct. They also are frequently not very fast to change shape.

[Metin Sitti] and researchers at several institutions have found a way to make rapidly changing silicone rubber parts¬†(PDF link) that can change shape due to a magnetic field. The method is reproducible and doesn’t seem out of reach for a hackerspace or well-equipped garage lab.

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Water Runner robot

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University’s NanoRobotics Lab have developed a robot that is capable of running on the surface of a pool of water. Like their wall climbing Waalbot, the Water Runner was inspired by the abilities of a lizard, in this case, the basilisk. The team studied the motions of the basilisk and found morphological features and aspects of the lizard’s stride that make running on water possible. Both the lizard and the robot run on water by slapping the surface to create an air cavity like the one above, then push against the water for the necessary lift and thrust. Several prototypes have been built, and there are variants with 2 or 4 legs and with on and off-board power sources. You can see a slow motion video of the robot’s movement below.

The purpose of their research is to create robots that can traverse any surface on earth and waste less energy to viscous drag than a swimming robot would. Though another of the team’s goals is to further legged robot research, the Water Runner is not without potential practical applications. It could be used to collect water samples, monitor waterways with a camera, or even deliver small packages. Download the full abstract in PDF format for more information.

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Magnetically actuated microbots

The Carnegie Mellon NanoRobotics Lab uses external magnetic fields to precisely control their nanosoccer players. The micro robots are just 300×300 micron specs of neodymium-iron-boron permanent magnets that have been laser machined. The working volume is surrounded by five electromagnetic coils. Four coils are used for position while the fifth provides clamping force to the work surface. The bot can be operated almost anywhere as long as the surface isn’t magnetically active. Machine vision is used to watch the bot and provide feedback control. Embedded below is the robot moving across a glass slide next to a dime. It can travel at speeds up to 60 body lengths per second.

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