Berkeley researchers create an insect-sized robot with exceptional agility

Robotics researchers are constantly working to improve robots for all manner of tasks. One of the most focused areas of research is creating small robots with high levels of agility, enabling them to navigate complex environments with ease. Engineers at the University of California, Berkeley have used a principle behind some of the specialized sticky footpads seen on insects allowing them to adhere to surfaces to create an insect-scale robot using electrostatic adhesion.

The electrostatic adhesion allows the robot to swerve and pivot with agility on par with a cheetah. Its high agility allows the robot to move across complex terrain and quickly avoid any unexpected obstacles. The robot the team created is built from a thin layer of material that bends and contracts when an electric voltage is applied.

The design for the robot was originally developed in 2019 and is a cockroach-sized robot able to scurry across a flat surface at a rate of 20 body lengths per second, or about 1.5 miles per hour. The new study saw the team add a pair of electrostatic footpads to the robot. Applying voltage to either the footpads increases the electrostatic force between the footpad and the surface the robot is walking on, making the footpad stick more firmly to the surface. With one of the footpads stuck more firmly to the surface, the remainder of the robot rotates around the foot, increasing its agility.

A pair of footpads gives the operator of the robot control over its trajectory and allows the robot to make turns with centripetal acceleration exceeding that generated by most insects. The team says that while the original robot from 2019 can move very fast, they could not control whether the robot went left or right. The new robot was filmed during research navigating Lego mazes while carrying a small gas sensor and swerving to avoid falling debris.

The small size of the robot allows it to survive being stepped on by a 120-pound human. Small and robust robots with high agility, such as the one the Berkeley team has created, have the potential to be used in search and rescue operations and for other tasks that are dangerous for humans, including looking for potential gas leaks.