Tech Briefs Magazine - February 2022 - MD-14

Giving Bug-Like Bots a Boost
A new fabrication technique helps improve the performance of flying micro-robots.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA
M
IT researchers have demonstrated
diminutive drones that can zip
around with bug-like agility and resilience,
which could eventually perform
tasks such as pollinating a field of crops
or searching for survivors amid the
rubble of a collapsed building. The
soft actuators that propel these micro-robots
are very durable, but they
require much higher voltages than similarly
sized rigid actuators. The featherweight
robots can't carry the necessary
power electronics that would allow them
fly on their own.
Now, these researchers have pioneered
a fabrication technique that enables
them to build soft actuators that
operate with 75 percent lower voltage
than current versions while carrying
80 percent more payload. These soft
actuators are like artificial muscles that
rapidly flap the robot's wings.
This new fabrication technique produces
artificial muscles with fewer defects,
which dramatically extends
the
lifespan of the components and increases
the robot's performance and payload.
The rectangular micro-robot, which
weighs less than one-fourth of a penny,
has four sets of wings that are each
driven by a soft actuator. These muscle-like
actuators are made from layers of
elastomer that are sandwiched between
two very thin electrodes and then rolled
into a squishy cylinder. When voltage is
applied to the actuator, the electrodes
The artificial muscles vastly improve the robot's payload and allow it to achieve best-in-class hovering performance.
(Photo: Kevin Chen)
squeeze the elastomer, and that mechanical
strain is used to flap the wing.
The more surface area the actuator
has, the less voltage is required. So,
the research team build these artificial
muscles by alternating between as many
ultrathin layers of elastomer and electrode
as they can. As elastomer layers
get thinner, they become more unstable.
For the first time, the researchers
were able to create an actuator with
20 layers, each of which is 10 micrometers
in thickness. After they created a
20-layer artificial muscle, they tested it
against their previous six-layer version
and state-of-the-art, rigid actuators.
During liftoff experiments, the 20layer
actuator, which requires less than
500 volts to operate, exerted enough
power to give the robot a lift-to-weight
ratio of 3.7 to 1, so it could carry items
that are nearly three times its weight.
They also demonstrated a 20-second
hovering flight, the longest ever recorded
by a sub-gram robot, according to the researchers.
The 20-layer actuator was still
working smoothly after being driven for
more than 2 million cycles, far outpacing
the lifespan of other actuators.
Now, the team is limited to how thin
they can make the layers and aims to reduce
the thickness to only 1 micrometer,
which would open the door to many applications
for these insect-sized robots.
For more information, contact Abby
Abazorius at abbya@mit.edu; 617-253-2709.
Bipedal Robot Achieves Better Body Balance
LEO carves out a new type of locomotion somewhere between walking and flying.
Caltech, Pasadena, CA
R
14
esearchers at Caltech have built a
bipedal robot that combines walking
with flying to create a new type of locomotion,
making it exceptionally nimble
and capable of complex movements.
Part walking robot, part flying drone,
the newly developed LEONARDO
(short for LEgs ONboARD drOne,
or LEO for short) can walk a slackline,
hop, and even ride a skateboard.
Developed by a team at Caltech's
Center for Autonomous Systems and
Technologies (CAST), LEO is the first
robot that uses multi-joint legs and propeller-based
thrusters to achieve a fine
degree of control over its balance.
Bipedal robots are able to tackle complex
real-world terrains by using the
same sort of movements that humans
use, like jumping or running or even
climbing stairs, but they are stymied by
rough terrain. Flying robots easily navigate
tough terrain by simply avoiding
the ground, but they face their own set
of limitations: high energy consumption
during flight and limited payload capacity.
LEO aims to bridge the gap between
Motion Design, February 2022
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ToC
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http://info.hotims.com/82318-800

Tech Briefs Magazine - February 2022

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