A research team from Finland’s Tampere University, together with researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems and Aalto University, has developed a soft mini-robot that can fly in the wind, powered by intelligent material, and be controlled by light. It resembles a seed of a dandelion drifting in the wind. The main difference: the shape of the little robot’s material can be changed using light in order to influence its flight.
Intelligent materials can be used to build actuators for robots that the artificial companions can use to walk, swim and jump. In their study “Dandelion-Inspired, Wind-Dispersed Polymer-Assembly Controlled by Light” published in Advanced Science, the researchers at Tampere University transferred this to flying robots and researched how they can make intelligent material fly.
The result of the FAIRY project (Flying Aero-robots based on Light Responsive Materials Assembly), which started in September 2021 and is scheduled to run until 2026, is an artificial seed whose actuator consists of a light-sensitive liquid-crystalline polymer. The bristles of the seed can be stimulated by light and thus closed or opened, says Hao Zeng, head of the research group for light robots at Tampere University, describing the mini-robot.
The robot weighs only 1.2 mg and has a high porosity of 0.95. This allows him to float in the air and be driven by the wind. The stable generation of a separate vortex ring enables wind-assisted locomotion, even over greater distances. The robot is controlled by a light source. That can be an LED or a laser, says Zeng. With the shape change, the robot can be manually adjusted to the wind direction and strength. In addition, take-off and landing processes can be controlled via it.
Artificial pollination and environmental research
But that still doesn’t work in sunlight. The researchers are therefore working on increasing the sensitivity of the material so that it works during the day. The mini-robots are also to be enlarged to carry microelectronic devices such as GPS and biosensors in order to conduct environmental research, for example.
In addition, the team sees an application for the robot in artificial pollination. Millions of such robots equipped with pollen could be sent out and directed to regions with agricultural crops that are to be pollinated. The robots could take over the task of biological pollinators such as bees, whose existence is increasingly threatened by global warming.
In principle, this is possible, as the proof of concept shows, says Zeng. However, some questions are still open. These include, for example, how the robots can be guided precisely to their destination and how they can be reused. In addition, it must be ensured that the robots are biodegradable so as not to pollute the environment.
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