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Robotic insect mimics nature's extreme moves

31 July 2015

An international team of Seoul National University and Harvard researchers looked to water strider insects to develop robots that jump off the surface of water.

The team's robotic insect alongside a real 'water strider' (video still courtesy of Wyss Institute at Harvard University)

One of the most complex manoeuvres - jumping on water - is achieved by a species of semi-aquatic insects called water striders that not only skim along water's surface but also generate enough upward thrust with their legs to launch themselves airborne from it.

Now, emulating this natural form of water-based locomotion, an international team of scientists from Seoul National University, Korea (SNU), Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, and the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, has unveiled a novel robotic insect that can jump from the surface of water. In doing so, they have revealed new insights into the natural mechanics that allow water striders to jump from rigid ground or fluid water with the same amount of power and height. The work is reported in the July 31 issue of Science.

"Water's surface needs to be pressed at the right speed for an adequate amount of time, up to a certain depth, in order to achieve jumping," says the study's co–senior author Kyu Jin Cho, Associate Professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and Director of the Biorobotics Laboratory at Seoul National University. "The water strider is capable of doing all these things flawlessly."

The water strider, whose legs have slightly curved tips, employs a rotational leg movement to aid it its takeoff from the water’s surface, discovered co–senior author, Professor Ho–Young Kim from SNU's Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. Kim, a former Wyss Institute Visiting Scholar, worked with the study’s co–first author Eunjin Yang from SNU's Micro Fluid Mechanics lab, to collect water striders and take extensive videos of their movements to analyse the mechanics that enable the insects to skim on and jump off water's surface.

It took the team several trial and error attempts to fully understand the mechanics of the water strider, using robotic prototypes to test and shape their hypotheses.

"If you apply as much force as quickly as possible on water, the limbs will break through the surface and you won’t get anywhere," says study co-author, Professor Robert Wood.

But by studying water striders in comparison to iterative prototypes of their robotic insect, the SNU and Harvard team discovered that the best way to jump off of water is to maintain leg contact on the water for as long as possible during the jump motion.

"Using its legs to push down on water, the natural water strider exerts the maximum amount of force just below the threshold that would break the water’s surface," says the study's co-first author, Dr Je-Sung Koh.

Mimicking these mechanics, the robotic insect built by the team can exert up to 16 times its own body weight on the water's surface without breaking through, and can do so without complicated controls. Many natural organisms such as the water strider can perform extreme styles of locomotion – such as flying, floating, swimming, or jumping on water – with great ease despite a lack of complex cognitive skills.

"This is due to their natural morphology," says Cho. "It is a form of embodied or physical intelligence, and we can learn from this kind of physical intelligence to build robots that are similarly capable of performing extreme manoeuvres without highly–complex controls or artificial intelligence."

The robotic insect was built using a 'torque reversal catapult mechanism' inspired by the way a flea jumps, which allows this kind of extreme locomotion without intelligent control. It was first reported by Cho, Wood and Koh in 2013 in the International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems.

For the robotic insect to jump off water, the lightweight catapult mechanism uses a burst of momentum coupled with limited thrust to propel the robot off the water without breaking the water's surface. An automatic triggering mechanism, built from composite materials and actuators, was employed to activate the catapult.

To produce the body of the robotic insect, 'pop-up' manufacturing was used to create folded composite structures that self-assemble much like the foldable components that pop–up in 3D books. Devised by engineers at the Harvard Paulson School and the Wyss Institute, this ingenious layering and folding process enables the rapid fabrication of microrobots and a broad range of electromechanical devices.

"The resulting robotic insects can achieve the same momentum and height that could be generated during a rapid jump on firm ground – but instead can do so on water – by spreading out the jumping thrust over a longer amount of time and in sustaining prolonged contact with the water's surface," says Wood.


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