Soft tiny robot caterpillar can climb slopes, transport loads

Researchers at the University of Warsaw in Poland have developed a tiny bio-inspired soft robot capable of mimicking caterpillar gaits in natural scale. The 15-milimetre long caterpillar-like robot harvests energy from green light to climb slopes, squeeze through narrow slits and transport loads. The researchers have used the Liquid Crystalline Elastomers (LCEs) technology to develop the microrobot, while the movements of the robot are controlled by spatially modulated laser beams. When exposed to light the micromachine can change shape and contract like a caterpillar and uses waves to propel it forward. The researchers at the Faculty of Physics, University of Warsaw have finally managed to create a caterpillar which can easily sit on a fingertip.

Is it the first of its kind?

For decades scientists and engineers around the world were looking for creating robots mimicking different modes of locomotives found in nature. Earthworms, snails, and larval insects have always intrigued scientist as they can efficiently move in complex environments using different strategies.

But previous attempts to create soft robots were limited because of difficulties in power management and remote control. Also, designs developed by scientists so far have rigid skeletons and joints driven by electric or pneumatic actuators.

What makes robot-caterpillar different from other design? Due to the presence of Liquid Crystalline Elastomers (LCEs), the robot can exhibit substantial shape change under visible light.

How useful is the robot-caterpillar?

The tiny machine can climb steep slopes and move objects that are ten times its size. The soft robots can operate in challenging environments and can be a part of scientific research. Furthermore, researchers believe the micromachine can even espionage if someone can find a way to attach a camera or a mic to it.

Researchers including those from European Laboratory for Nonlinear Spectroscopy (LENS) in Italy and the UK believe that soft caterpillar has potential future applications. Moreover, scientists hope that rethinking materials, fabrication techniques, and design strategies can open up new areas of soft robotics, including swimmers (both on surface and underwater) and even fliers.