Robot Insect Survives Swatting

There is an old saying, that ‘the hand is quicker than the eye;, but somewhat slower than the fly.” However, with a little practice you can swat a fly, although it sometimes doesn’t seem to faze the fly. École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) has announced they have used nanotech to build a 1 gram possibly untethered, autonomous robotic insect that has enough processing power and sensors to recognize black and white patterns. Artificial muscles provide propulsion. But there’s the kicker: it can survive a strike with a fly swatter.

In the video you see below, the robots can move at 3 centimeters per second and there are two different versions. The first is a tethered system using ultra-thin wires. This is the version that can be folded, smacked, or even squashed by a shoe and continue moving.

The autonomous version weighs in at under 1 gram but has everything it needs including a tiny battery. The propulsion system uses dielectric elastomer actuators (DEAs). These hair-thin muscles consist of an elastomer membrane and two soft electrodes.

Applying a voltage to the electrodes attracts them to each other, compressing the membrane. When you turn the voltage off, the membrane returns to its original shape much like a spring.

This kind of muscle usually requires a very high voltage, but the new insects use a design that doesn’t require high voltages, allowing the bug to carry its battery and other electronics on its back. Not bad for under a gram.

This reminded us somewhat of muscle wire, but on a much smaller scale. We’ve even seen robot muscles made from fishing line and nichrome wire.

4 thoughts on “Robot Insect Survives Swatting

  1. “This kind of muscle usually requires a very high voltage, but the new insects use a design that doesn’t require high voltages…”

    What? The thing requires unobtainum until it doesn’t?

    1. The strain of DEA is proportional to the relative permittivity, and inversely to the stiffness and square of the membrane thickness. So my guess is that it is a relatively soft (<1 MPa) , very thin material with reasonably high dielectric constant (10-50), like a PVDF or silicone copolymer. One of the advantages of DEA are that they are generally made of rather mundane polymers, but the "secret sauce" tends to be in their processing. "Ordinary" thick DEA may have driving voltage on the order of tens of kV, but properly tailored actuators can be on the order of high tens to low hundreds of volts (and correspondingly low current). I did my doctoral work on DEA muscles – really neat stuff!

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