If you’ve watched any of the full-scale robotics competitions on PBS then you’re aware that, contrary to the movies, robots are a very long way from taking over the world. First, they need to manage to stay standing up and work a doorknob.
Advances in micro-robotics are much more promising. We’ve talked before about how scientists turn to the insect world to find inspiration. And how they’ve harnessed cockroaches to do their, um, dirty work, so to speak, with implants.
But now, we’re entering the next generation of robotic roach research. Recent TV shows have shown us a robotic replacement for honeybees and miniature drones that look like dragonflies. Harvard University’s Ambulatory Microrobot or HAMR isn’t quite as detailed as those portrayals. But it does mimic several characteristics of a cockroach.
Much like James Bond’s famous Aston Martin, the HAMR can walk on land, swim on the surface of water and walk underwater. Its foot pads and size keep it buoyant above water like a cockroch. In action on the water’s surface, the robot looks like a diving beetle paddling through the water. But the robo roach even has the capability to send a tiny electrical current into the surface of the water that lets it sink.
This process is called electrowetting and it’s rather complicated. But to put it in layman’s terms, the electrical zap causes the surface of the water to have a tiny fold, almost an invisible wave that the HAMR’s feet slip through, allowing it to descend.
Of course, it all works because of the small size of the HAMR and the insects it’s patterned after. A full size robot, just like a normal man, would quickly sink into the water. The robotic roach weighs about as much as a large paper clip, and can carry almost as much additional weight and stay afloat.
Getting out from under the water is a lot more challenging. Because of the size and weight of the HAMR, even the pressure from a few inches of water would be like you scuba diving with 3 people sitting on your back.
Researchers adjusted the robo roaches’ legs, but it still has to go up a ramp to be able to get out of the water. Their next plan? Find a way to adapting the gecko’s naturally sticky feet for their robot friend.
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