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Insect-Like Robot Walks on Water Print E-mail

Inspired by nature's water strider insect, scientists at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh have engineered a bug-like robot that can skate across water.
By Tracy Staedter, Discovery NewsNot only does such a machine provide deeper insight into the real insect's ability to move, it gives engineers a new paradigm for thinking about how to build fast, maneuverable devices.

"By looking at nature, we have found a very efficient solution for locomotion on water," said assistant professor Metin Sitti, whose team built the robot.

The three-inch-long (7.6-centimeter) machine looks and moves very similarly to the real thing. It has six legs: two front, two back and two out to the side, which row back and forth to propel it forward.

Made of a lightweight metal, the robot weighs only 0.6 gram. But the lightness alone is not what keeps it walking on water. Tiny hairs on the ends of its legs that repel water keep the actual insect afloat. Sitti keeps his bugs buoyant by dipping the legs in a water-resistant Teflon solution.

Three flexible joint-like connections called actuators — one on the body and one located where each side leg attaches to the body — give the robot the flexibility it needs for motion.
The actuators, made from a ceramic-metallic composite layered on top of a stainless steel plate, shrink or expand when Sitti applies a voltage to them.

Varying the frequency of the electric current going to each leg allows Sitti to steer the robotic insect left, right, forward or backward.

In the natural world, the water strider moves at the lightning speed of one to two meters per second. For now, Sitti's bug moves at five centimeters per second.

But his team is looking at modifications, such as redesigning the leg joint to achieve a more efficient leg stroke and faster propulsion.

Making such tweaks helps to illustrate what design variables contribute to the real insect's quickness.

For example, based on what the water strider does in nature, Sitti determined that the legs on his own robot needed a 90-degree range of motion to get the best propulsion.
"I like to see people looking at interesting things nature can do that we haven't yet figure out as engineers," said Brad Nelson, professor of robotics and intelligent systems at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. "That provides further impetus to explore other areas of nature and develop more capable microbiotics."

Swarms of Sitti's water strider robot could one day be used for surveillance or to monitor water quality. But his team has several technical challenges to overcome before that happens.

They are currently investigating ways to integrate the power and electronics in the tiny machine, as opposed to feeding it with wires, and this summer hope to test a wireless version with sensors or a tiny camera.

 
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