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Lab Report: A Resilient Robot Bug

Aug 01, 2020   |   by Zi Chen and Congran Ji   |   Dartmouth Engineer

Illustration by Patricio Sarzosa

Today’s robots can be intelligent and tough and are already helpful to humans in many ways. There remain a lot of scenarios, however, where traditional robots cannot function well. For example, robots often are made of rigid materials, such as alloys and plastics, which makes them vulnerable to fracture and their motility becomes limited in confined spaces or on rough terrains.

To solve this problem, a group of researchers at Dartmouth developed a miniature robotic bug that has a flexible body, is easily maneuverable, can crawl on different terrains and through narrow spaces, and can be completely flattened without damaging its functionality.

These unique capabilities are achieved through a combination of innovative design and cutting-edge transducer materials. The robot is built using thin polyimide films that can be actuated by electrostatic force, which is ubiquitous in our daily life. The actuator, which makes up the body of the robot, has a three-layer sandwich structure with the top layer buckled up to form an arch shape. By supplying an AC voltage to the top and bottom films, the buckled top film will deform periodically, thus converting electrostatic potential to kinetic and elastic energy.

“Due to its thin-film-based designs for both buckled light-weight structure as well as powerful actuation, the robotic bug is flexible enough to crawl through narrow spaces, quickly maneuver through various landscapes and resilient enough to recover after being crushed,” says Congran “Billy” Jin, an engineering PhD candidate at Dartmouth and first author on the paper.

“The robot is also highly tunable through some ‘special’ design modifications,” says assistant professor of engineering Zi Chen. “For instance, we added bi-stable, origami-inspired legs so that it can move either both forward or backward when the legs switch between the two mechanically stable states.”

This unique robotic bug may pave the way toward a variety of potential applications in such areas as detection/inspection, search-and-rescue, and disaster relief.

This article originally appeared in Advanced Science News and is reprinted with permission.

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