Inspired by insects, robotics engineers create machines that could aid in search and rescue, pollinate plants and detect gas leaks
Heavy robots are limited in what they can do. Building smaller, more agile robots, similar to the way insects move and act, could greatly expand the capabilities of robots.
“If we think about the functions of insects that animals can’t do,” said Kevin Chen, an assistant professor of electrical engineering at MIT, “it gets us thinking about what smaller, insect-scale robots , can do, that bigger robots can’t do.”
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Most advances are in the research phase, years after commercialization. But they present tantalizing solutions for a range of industries, including emergency response, agriculture and energy.
The search is accelerating for several reasons, experts said. Electronic sensors are getting smaller and better, thanks in large part to smartwatch research. Manufacturing techniques have evolved, making it easier to build small parts. Small battery technology is also improving.
But several challenges remain. Tiny robots cannot replicate the workload of a larger robot. Although batteries are getting better, they should be smaller and more powerful. Miniature parts that convert energy into robotic motion, called actuators, need to become more efficient. The sensors should be even lighter.
“We’re starting to look at how insects solve these problems, and we’re making a lot of progress,” said Sawyer B. Fuller, an assistant professor who directs the Autonomous Insect Robotics Laboratory at the University of Washington. “But there are a lot of things…we don’t have yet.”
Much of the insect robot research can be broken down into a few areas, the researchers said. Some scientists build an entire robot to mimic the movement and size of real insects, such as bees and lightning bolts. Others put electronics on living insects and control them, essentially creating cyborgs (beings that have both organic and mechanical aspects). While some are experimenting with a hybrid – connecting parts of a living insect, like an antenna, to a robot machine.
Robotics engineers started taking inspiration from insects about 10 to 15 years ago. At the time, few research laboratories were studying it. “Ten years ago, I honestly think it sounded more like science fiction,” Chen said.
But over the years, more and more researchers have entered space, largely because technology is advancing. Much of the activity has been driven by developments in carbon fibers and lasers, which can create “very fine features and complex structures” on a small scale, Chen added.
Electronic sensors have also improved, largely because smartphones and smartwatches have spurred research to make smaller electronic parts.
“If you think of your smartphone, there are so many sensors inside,” Chen said. “You can really take advantage of a lot of these sensors or put these sensors into micro-scale robots.”
Kenjiro Fukuda, a researcher at the Riken Institute Thin-Film Device Laboratory in Japan, leads a team that attaches 3D-printed sensors to live hissing cockroaches from Madagascar. The sensors work like a small backpack containing solar panels for power; a blue-toothed sensor for the remote control and specialized computers that connect to the cockroach’s abdomen and send tiny shocks to steer it left or right.
Fukuda envisions these cyborg cockroaches helping out in emergency situations, such as an earthquake. Survivors could be in the rubble and difficult to spot with the naked eye, he said.
The cockroaches could be remote-controlled and released into the rubble with carbon dioxide sensors and cameras on their backs, helping to find people in need of rescue.
“Big people can’t get under the rubble,” Fukuda said. “Little bugs or little robots can.”
Fukuda said he could also apply this approach to other insects with large shells, such as beetles and cicadas. But many improvements need to be made to battery design and power consumption of parts before this solution is deployed in real life, he said.
When it comes to cyborg insects, not everyone is excited. Jeff Sebo, a professor of animal bioethics at New York University, said he worries about how living insects might feel controlled by humans while carrying heavy technology. It’s unclear whether they feel pain or distress from it, he said, but that doesn’t mean humans should ignore it.
“We don’t even pay lip service to their welfare or their rights,” he said. “We’re not even considering putting in place any laws or policies or review boards so that we can half-heartedly try to reduce the harm we impose on them.”
Chen creates lightning flying robots. They are fully robotic machines that mimic the way lightning moves, communicates and flies.
Inspired by the way lightning bolts use electroluminescence to glow and communicate in real life, Chen’s team built flexible artificial flight muscles that control the robot’s wings and emit colored light during flight.
This could allow a swarm of these robots to communicate with each other, Chen said, and could be used to pollinate crops on vertical farms or even in space.
“If I want to grow crops in space, [I want] pollination,” he said. “In this scenario, a flying robot would be much, much more appropriate than sending bees.”
Fuller said he turned to insects when creating tiny robots because it was so much better than relying on his imagination. “You see insects doing crazy things that you could never do on a human scale,” he said. “We just watch how the insects do it.”
Fuller’s team works on building a robotic fly. Similar to cyborg cockroaches, flies could be used in search and rescue missions. They could also be released to fly and search for airborne chemical leaks or cracks in piping infrastructure.
“You open a suitcase and these little robotic flies fly around,” he said. “Then once you know where the leak is, you can seal it.”
Fuller said he recognizes there is a long way to go before his robots can make it. It will be difficult to miniaturize all the sensors, power supplies and parts necessary for the robots to move and send data back to the teams. Making batteries small enough but powerful enough to emit the energy needed for robotic functions is a daunting challenge. Stabilizing robots that can flap their wings and fly, but also carry sensors, will require more design research.
Despite difficulties, he said scientists are also working to take parts of a living insect, such as moth antennae, and attach them to a robot that could one day read data from them. This hybrid method could be an ideal place for insect robot researchers, he said.
“I think that’s the way to go,” Fuller added. “Take bits of the biology that works really well and do the rest robotically.”
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