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This Crawling Robot Is Powered by Light


Machines already think faster than we can with our squishy brains. But moving around is still a tough one for robots. Some machines can roll, walk, and even run, though they need a lot of power and complex, easily damaged components to do it. Researchers from Eindhoven University of Technology and Kent State University have developed a material that could make locomotion a much simpler affair. All this new polymer needs is a beam of light, and it gets going.

The new material is a polymer, a long chain of repeating molecules. In this case, the polymer contains light-sensitive crystals that change shape in response to certain wavelengths of light. Simply stretching wouldn’t be enough to drive movement with just a single strip of polymer, but that’s the clever bit. The team is installed inside a frame that’s slightly too small. This creates a bulge that undulates down the length of the polymer when it’s excited by light.

In this case, a violet LED is used to power the polymer’s motion. That wavelength of light has more energy than others, and it’s enough to cause the liquid-crystals to instantaneously deform. While the material looks quite purple, that’s from a small fraction of the light shining on the polymer. It blocks 100 percent of the violet light from reaching the other side of the material. That keeps the opposite side relaxed, sending the bulge oscillating in one direction. If the polymer is flipped over, the bulge moves in the other direction. So, you can have this device crawl either away from or toward the source of the light.

This polymer contraption isn’t currently going to take you places, since it moves at a reliable pace of only about one centimeter per second. The team compares it with a caterpillar, which is fitting considering its clear resemblance to the real thing.

The researchers envision it being used to transport small objects into tight spaces. However, “small” is a relative term here. They found it could actually carry an object several times more massive than the polymer itself. The polymer could also be used to maintain solar cells, crawling along to sweep dust and debris off the panel and keep it at maximum efficiency. The team tested this by placing grains of sand on the strip, and the undulating motion was able to clear them away.

This new polymer is still experimental. It could eventually lead to a new class of slithering machines that don’t require a lot of power or complicated components.



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