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10-gram robots can jump and crawl in swarms

10-gram robots can jump and crawl in swarms

Technology News |
By eeNews Europe



The reconfigurable robots are simple origami-based structures that combine multiple shape-memory alloy actuators to be able to jump and crawl across uneven surfaces. The work lead by Professor Jamie Paik at the EPFL National Center of Competence in Robotics (NCCR) Laboratory was published in Nature under the title “Designing minimal and scalable insect-inspired multi-locomotion millirobots”. The paper describes untethered, battery-powered millirobot that can selectively switch gaits to traverse diverse terrain types, and groups of millirobots that can operate collectively to manipulate objects and overcome obstacles.

Individually and based on swarm-based terrain awareness, each palm-sized millirobot can chose to jump vertically for height, horizontally for distance, perform a somersault to clear an obstacle, walk on textured terrain and crawl on a flat surface. They are built through the integration of mechanical, material and electronic layers into a quasi-two-dimensional metamaterial sandwich which can fold and change shape to adopt various gaits.

Similarly to ants, the tiny robots only exhibit minimal physical intelligence on an individual level, but being connected, they can act collectively. Programmed with swarm-based algorithms, they can collectively detect and overcome obstacles, pass them and move objects much larger and heavier than themselves.

The Tribots (short for those three-legged T-shaped origami robots) can be assembled in only a few minutes by folding a stack of thin, multi-material sheets. They come equipped with infrared and proximity sensors for detection and communication purposes, but could carry more sensors if needed.


“Their movements are modeled on those of Odontomachus ants. These insects normally crawl, but to escape a predator, they snap their powerful jaws together to jump from leaf to leaf”, explains Zhenishbek Zhakypov, the first author.

Despite having the same “anatomy”, each robot is assigned a specific role depending on the situation. ‘Explorers’ detect physical obstacles in their path, such as objects, valleys and mountains. After detecting an obstacle, they inform the rest of the group. Then, the “leader” gives the instructions. The ‘workers’, meanwhile, pool their strength to move objects. “Each Tribot, just like Odontomachus ants, can have different roles. However, they can also take on new roles instantaneously when faced with a new mission or an unknown environment, or even when other members get lost. This goes beyond what the real ants can do” notes Paik.

In practical situations, such as in an emergency search mission, Tribots could be deployed en masse. And thanks to their multi-locomotive and multi-agent communication capabilities, they could locate a target quickly over a large surface without relying on GPS or visual feedback.

“Since they can be manufactured and deployed in large numbers, having some ‘casualties’ would not affect the success of the mission,” explains Paik. “With their unique collective intelligence, our tiny robots are better equipped to adapt to unknown environments. Therefore, for certain missions, they would outperform larger, more powerful robots.” The development of robots for search-and-rescue applications and the study of collective robotics are key research areas within the NCCR Robotics consortium, of which Jamie Paik’s lab is part.

The Swiss National Center of Competence in Robotics (NCCR) – www.nccr-robotics.ch

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