Caterpillar micro-robot sitting on a finger tip. (Source: FUW)

Light-powered robot caterpillar mimics natural relatives

Researchers at the University of Warsaw have unveiled a bio-inspired natural-scale soft caterpillar robot.

Powered by green light and controlled by a spatially modulated laser beam, the 15mm-long soft robot can travel across flat surfaces, climb slopes, squeeze through small spaces and transport loads ten times its own mass, demonstrating its ability to perform in challenging environments and highlighting potential future applications.

Engineers have spent years trying to build robots that mimic natural movement, often focusing on rigid skeletons and joints driven by actuators. Until recently most attempts to create soft robots have been limited to larger-scale designs due to difficulties in power management and control. However, this is now beginning to change.

"Designing soft robots calls for a completely new paradigm in their mechanics, power supply and control," said project leader Piotr Wasylczyk, head of the Photonic Nanostructure Facility at the Faculty of Physics of the University of Warsaw, Poland. "We are only beginning to learn from nature and shift our design approaches towards these that emerged in natural evolution."

The University of Warsaw’s robot caterpillar, developed with colleagues from Italy and Cambridge, uses liquid crystal elastomer (LCE) technology. Its body is made of a light-sensitive elastomer stripe with patterned molecular alignment and by controlling the travelling deformation pattern the robot mimics different gaits of its natural relatives.

Going forward, researchers hope that rethinking materials, fabrication techniques and design strategies should open up new areas of soft robotics in micro- and millimetre-length scales, including robots capable of both swimming and flying.

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