Pitt engineers create insect-inspired robots that can survey hard-to-reach places

These ancient creatures can squeeze through the smallest cracks, fit perfectly into tight spaces, and survive in harsh environments—there aren’t many forbidden spaces for an insect.

That’s why researchers at the University of Pittsburgh have created tiny, insect-inspired robots that can perform tasks in hard-to-reach spaces and inhospitable environments.

“These robots could be used to access confined areas for imaging or environmental assessment, take water samples or perform structural assessments,” said Junfeng Gao, who led the work as a PhD student in industrial engineering at the Swanson School of Engineering. “Anywhere you want to get into confined places – where an insect can go but a person can’t – these machines could be useful.”

For many creatures of a certain size, such as trap-jaw ants, mantis shrimps and fleas, jumping on a surface is more energy efficient than crawling. These impulsive movements have been replicated in the robots, which are made of polymeric artificial muscle.

“It’s akin to loading an arrow into a bow and shooting it – the robots cling together to build up energy, then release it in an impulsive burst to leap forward,” explained engineering professor Ravi Shankar. industrialist at Pitt whose laboratory led the research. “Usually the actuation of the artificial muscles we work with is quite slow. We were drawn to the question, ‘How can we take this artificial muscle and use it to generate jump activation rather than slow activation? ?”

The answer lies in the interplay of molecular order and geometry.

“The curved composite shape of polymer muscle allows it to generate energy when energized. The way molecules are aligned in muscle is inspired by the natural world, where their combined activation creates energy in the structure,” said Mohsen Tabrizi, co-author of the study and a PhD student in industrial engineering at the Swanson School. “This is accomplished using no more than a few volts of electricity.

The versatile movement and lightweight structure allow the robots, which are roughly the size of a cricket, to move over moving surfaces like sand as easily as hard surfaces, and even jump across water.

The article titled “Molecularly Directed, Geometrically Latched, Impulsive Actuation Powers Sub-Gram Scale Motility” (DOI: 10.1002/admt.202100979) was published in the journal Advanced materials technologies and was co-written by Junfeng Gao, Arul Clement, Mohsen Tabrizi and Mr. Ravi Shankar.

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Material provided by University of Pittsburgh. Original written by Maggie Lindenberg. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.