Natural scale caterpillar soft robot is powered and controlled with light

August 22, 2016, University of Warsaw
Caterpillar micro-robot sitting on a finger tip. Credit: FUW

Researchers at the Faculty of Physics at the University of Warsaw, using the liquid crystal elastomer technology originally developed in the LENS Institute in Florence, demonstrated a bio-inspired micro-robot capable of mimicking caterpillar gaits in natural scale. The 15-millimeter-long soft robot harvests energy from green light and is controlled by spatially modulated laser beam. Apart from traveling on flat surfaces, it can also climb slopes, squeeze through narrow slits and transport loads.

For decades scientists and engineers have been trying to build robots mimicking different modes of locomotion found in nature. Most of these designs have rigid skeletons and joints driven by electric or pneumatic actuators. In nature, however, a vast number of creatures navigate their habitats using soft bodies—earthworms, snails and larval insects can effectively move in complex environments using different strategies. Until now, attempts to create soft robots were limited to larger scale (typically tens of centimeters), mainly due to difficulties in power management and remote control.

Liquid crystalline elastomers (LCEs) are smart materials that can significantly change shape under illumination with visible light. With recently developed techniques, it is possible to pattern these soft materials into arbitrary 3-D forms with a pre-defined actuation performance. The light-induced deformation allows a monolithic LCE structure to perform complex actions without numerous discrete actuators.

Researchers from the University of Warsaw with colleagues from LESN (Italy) and Cambridge (UK) have now developed a natural-scale, soft caterpillar robot with an opto-mechanical liquid crystalline elastomer monolithic design. The robot body is made of a light sensitive elastomer stripe with patterned molecular alignment. By controlling the traveling deformation pattern, the robot mimics different gaits of its natural relatives. It can also walk up a slope, squeeze through a slit and push objects as heavy as 10 times its own mass, demonstrating its ability to perform in challenging environments and pointing toward potential future applications.

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

Researchers hope that rethinking materials, fabrication techniques and design strategies will open up new areas of soft robotics in micro- and millimeter-length scales, including swimmers (both on-surface and underwater) and even fliers.

Explore further: Artificial muscle for soft robotics: Low voltage, high hopes

More information: Mikołaj Rogóż et al, Light-Driven Soft Robot Mimics Caterpillar Locomotion in Natural Scale, Advanced Optical Materials (2016). DOI: 10.1002/adom.201600503

Related Stories

Artificial muscle for soft robotics: Low voltage, high hopes

July 21, 2016

Soft robots do a lot of things well but they're not exactly known for their speed. The artificial muscles that move soft robots, called actuators, tend to rely on hydraulics or pneumatics, which are slow to respond and difficult ...

Transmitting energy in soft materials

August 8, 2016

Soft materials are great at damping energy—that's why rubber tires are so good at absorbing the shock of bumps and potholes. But if researchers are going to build autonomous soft systems, like soft robots, they'll need ...

Robot wind-around tentacle can grab, hold ant and egg

June 12, 2015

No harm done: a soft robot tentacle can lasso an ant with no killer motives. The tentacle can handle tiny, fragile objects, the result of a soft robot that curls itself into a circle with a radius of just 200 micrometers, ...

Single actuator wave-like robot developed

August 1, 2016

The first SAW (Single Actuator Wave-like Robot) that produces a pure wave motion using a single motor has been developed at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. The SAW robot is designed for medical applications, maintenance, ...

Recommended for you

Woman struck and killed by self-driving Uber vehicle

March 19, 2018

A self-driving Uber vehicle struck and killed a pedestrian in a Phoenix suburb in the first fatality involving a fully autonomous test vehicle, prompting the ride-hailing company Monday to suspend all road-testing of such ...

World's biggest battery in Australia to trump Musk's

March 16, 2018

British billionaire businessman Sanjeev Gupta will built the world's biggest battery in South Australia, officials said Friday, overtaking US star entrepreneur Elon Musk's project in the same state last year.

1 in 3 Michigan workers tested opened fake 'phishing' email

March 16, 2018

Michigan auditors who conducted a fake "phishing" attack on 5,000 randomly selected state employees said Friday that nearly one-third opened the email, a quarter clicked on the link and almost one-fifth entered their user ...

Origami-inspired self-locking foldable robotic arm

March 15, 2018

A research team of Seoul National University led by Professor Kyu-Jin Cho has developed an origami-inspired robotic arm that is foldable, self-assembling and also highly-rigid. (The researchers include Suk-Jun Kim, Dae-Young ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.