An autonomous robotic flea has been developed that is capable of jumping nearly 30 times its height, thanks to what is arguably the world’s smallest rubber band.
Swarms of such robots could eventually be used to create networks of distributed sensors for detecting chemicals or for military-surveillance purposes, says Sarah Bergbreiter, an electrical engineer at University of California, Berkeley, who developed the robots.
The idea is that stretching a silicone rubber band just nine microns thick can enable these microrobotic devices to move by catapulting themselves into the air. Early tests show that the solar-powered bots can store enough energy to make a 7-millimeter robot jump 200 millimeters high.
This flealike ballistic jumping would enable these sensors to be mobile, covering relatively large distances and overcoming obstacles that would normally be a major problem for micrometer-sized bots, says Bergbreiter.
Such sensors could be scattered from a plane but may not land in the most ideal positions, so making them mobile could allow them to be repositioned, if somewhat haphazardly. “Distributed sensors in general give you the large picture,” Bergbreiter says. This is because they can provide a more detailed resolution over a larger area compared with more-traditional nondistributed approaches to sensing.
“With miniature robots, hopping is a good option if you’re trying to move over uneven terrains,” says Metin Sitti, an assistant professor at the nanorobotics lab at the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh. “At that size, the critical issue is power, so it is a good choice to store energy,” he says.
The impressive jumping skills of insects such as fleas come from their ability to store energy in an elastomeric protein called resilin. This allows them to store a large amount of energy and then release it very suddenly as movement. But while insects store the energy through compressing an elastomer, Bergbreiter opted for a system that stretches one.
Working with Kris Pister as part of the Berkeley Smart Dust Project, which was set up to build distributed-sensor networks that can communicate over long distances using mesh networks, Bergbreiter aimed to give these kinds of sensors useful mobility. She created a tiny solar-cell array to power the device, a microcontroller to govern its behavior, and a series of micro electromechanical systems (MEMS) motors on a silicon substrate. The last were used as part of a ratcheting mechanism called inchworm motors, which draw two hooks apart as a means of stretching the rubber band.
Bergbreiter, in collaboration with the Smart Dust Project, created the rubber band by cutting a circular strip measuring just nine microns thick and two millimeters long out of a thin sheet of silicone using a very fine infrared laser. It was then hooked onto the robot’s stretching mechanism using nothing more than a pair of ultraprecision tweezers, a stereoscopic microscope, and a steady hand. This was a bit like playing the children’s game Operation, only harder, says Bergbreiter.