Engineers reveal ‘invincible’ autonomous robot insect that can’t be flattened

19 Dec 2019

The DEAnsect weighs just 0.2g. Image: EPFL

A team in Switzerland has created a soft robotic insect that can withstand a multitude of hits from a flyswatter.

A new soft robotic insect could one day form part of a swarm designed to perform a number of different tasks. A team from the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland developed the insect and showed it is incredibly durable, even when being battered by a flyswatter.

Publishing its findings to Science Robotics, the team said the insect – called DEAnsect – is propelled 3cm per second by artificial muscles. Two versions were produced: one tethered with ultra-thin wires, the other being untethered and autonomous weighing less than 1g, including its battery and components.

It comes equipped with a microcontroller for a brain and photodiodes as eyes, allowing it to recognise black and white patterns, enabling DEAnsect to follow any line drawn on the ground. In addition to being able to withstand a number of whacks from a flyswatter, the insect can also deal with being folded or squashed with a shoe without being impaired.

Good vibrations

DEAnsect moves forward using dielectric elastomer actuators (DEAs), a type of hair-thin artificial muscle that propels it forward through vibrations. This makes the insect light and quick, as well as allowing it to scale various terrains, including undulated surfaces.

These artificial muscles contain an elastomer membrane sandwiched between two soft electrodes. When a voltage is applied, the electrodes are attracted to each other, compressing the membrane and returning to its original shape when switched off.

Turning the muscles on and off 400 times a second allows the insect to move. Each of the insect’s legs have three of these muscles. By using nanofabrication techniques, the EPFL team could use relatively low voltages by reducing the thickness of the elastomer membrane and by developing soft, highly conductive electrodes only a few molecules thick.

In doing so, the power source could be shrunk down significantly until the point where the whole insect weighs 0.2g.

“This technique opens up new possibilities for the broad use of DEAs in robotics, for swarms of intelligent robotic insects, for inspection or remote repairs, or even for gaining a deeper understanding of insect colonies by sending a robot to live amongst them,” said Herbert Shea of the research team

“We’re currently working on an untethered and entirely soft version with Stanford University. In the longer term, we plan to fit new sensors and emitters to the insects so they can communicate directly with one another.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic