Research ArticleSOFT ROBOTS

An autonomous untethered fast soft robotic insect driven by low-voltage dielectric elastomer actuators

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Science Robotics  18 Dec 2019:
Vol. 4, Issue 37, eaaz6451
DOI: 10.1126/scirobotics.aaz6451

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Abstract

Insects are a constant source of inspiration for roboticists. Their compliant bodies allow them to squeeze through small openings and be highly resilient to impacts. However, making subgram autonomous soft robots untethered and capable of responding intelligently to the environment is a long-standing challenge. One obstacle is the low power density of soft actuators, leading to small robots unable to carry their sense and control electronics and a power supply. Dielectric elastomer actuators (DEAs), a class of electrostatic electroactive polymers, allow for kilohertz operation with high power density but require typically several kilovolts to reach full strain. The mass of kilovolt supplies has limited DEA robot speed and performance. In this work, we report low-voltage stacked DEAs (LVSDEAs) with an operating voltage below 450 volts and used them to propel an insect-sized (40 millimeters long) soft untethered and autonomous legged robot. The DEAnsect body, with three LVSDEAs to drive its three legs, weighs 190 milligrams and can carry a 950-milligram payload (five times its body weight). The unloaded DEAnsect moves at 30 millimeters/second and is very robust by virtue of its compliance. The sub–500-volt operation voltage enabled us to develop 780-milligram drive electronics, including optical sensors, a microcontroller, and a battery, for two channels to output 450 volts with frequencies up to 1 kilohertz. By integrating this flexible printed circuit board with the DEAnsect, we developed a subgram robot capable of autonomous navigation, independently following printed paths. This work paves the way for new generations of resilient soft and fast untethered robots.

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