Dec. 28, 1997 NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Two Vanderbilt University mechanical engineering professors are developing a tiny insect-like robot, about a third the size of a credit card, which will have applications for military and intelligence-gathering missions.
Professors Ephrahim Garcia and Michael Goldfarb were recently granted a three-year contract to produce robotic insect crawlers. The grant was awarded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Garcia and Goldfarb are also exploring the development of small flying robotic insects (microflyers) for military purposes.
The insects could be used to explore a minefield or to support a small infantry unit by seeing over the next hill, an age-old military problem. Knowing where the enemy is and what its strengths are would allow for indirect fire on the enemy. This would allow a small unit of soldiers to project more fire on the enemy than they themselves are carrying.
The researchers say the crawlers could also be used to support law enforcement units in urban environments. If terrorists were occupying a building and holding hostages, the crawlers could enter the building and feed back video images and motion-sensing data showing exactly where the terrorists and hostages were located.
The two Vanderbilt researchers expect to produce a rudimentary prototype of the crawler in the summer of 1998 and then refine it during the next two years. The crawlers would be equipped with microelctromechanical systems (MEMS) (more)
for sensing their surroundings. Garcia and Goldfarb plan to utilize "elasto-dynamic locomotion" to power the insects, using piezoelectric actuators-thin ceramic-coated metal plates that bend when electricity is supplied to them and then snap back to original form when the power is off. The power would come from a small battery similar to those used in watches.
The crawler would have a piezoelectric actuator that would make the body's two lengthwise segments oscillate back and forth, Garcia said. One-piece legs attached to the body would carry the insect forward. A space in the center of the body would contain the battery and the payload, which might be a microcamera or sensors that detect sound or heat.
Most previous robotic research has involved devices with multiple joints, each with its own motor or actuator. But the Vanderbilt researchers believe their use of piezoelectric actuators is an advance over previous motor technology.
Piezoelectric actuators are capable of turning more than 90 percent of electrical power into movement, whereas an electric motor has an efficiency of about 60 percent, Garcia said.
For the microflyer, engineers are borrowing from entomological research. Goldfarb and Garcia said scientists have discovered that an insect's wings flap five times faster than its brain can command them to.
Scientists have also learned that insects use their muscles to flex their entire exoskeletons, which are in effect resonating to keep the wings in motion, Goldfarb said. The researchers have come up with a metal skeleton they believe will imitate the vibration and magnify the movement of the piezoelectric actuators powering the wings.
Garcia and Goldfarb are also working on "swarm dynamics"-the right combination of crawling and flying bugs for conducting a search.
The robotic insects will be so small and lightweight (about an ounce) that an individual combat soldier could easily carry large numbers of them in addition to his basic equipment. They will also be cheap and disposable.
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