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Strategic Research Initiatives

Bio-inspired Insect-Scale Robots: A nexus for interdisciplinary research

Aimy Wissa, Sameh Tawfick: Mechanical Science and Engineering

Nancy Amato: Computer Science

Viktor Gruev: Electrical and Computer Engineering.

Addressing the problem

We are on the cusp of a future marked by ubiquitous robots capable of previously unimaginable tasks at low costs. A group of us at Illinois believe that insect-scale robots are no longer a far-fetched target owing to recent advances in actuator materials, optical sensing, heterogeneous 3D printing, and insights into the locomotion mechanisms of biological insects. Applications for insect-scale robots include swarm-based search and rescue, surveillance, micro-constructions, manipulation, and medical devices. In industry, insect-scale robots can be used in tasks that require automated handling and assembly of parts with sub-micron scale accuracy.

Current robots at the millimeter scale still face severe actuation, locomotion, and power challenges. There is a discrepancy between the power source and the actuators' power requirements, which necessitates most robots at this scale to be powered by physical tethers or external photonic, magnetic, or vibration fields. Finally, the lack of onboard sensing and computing prevent fully autonomous navigation and path planning. These scale-induced challenges prevent small robots from becoming autonomous in terms of power (ability to move untethered), mobility (ability to traverse diverse terrains), and control (reliably plan the path and navigate from point A to point B).

Research goals

The goal of this collaborative effort is to build a cohesive and interdisciplinary team focusing on bioinspired insect-scale robotics. We will leverage our team's expertise in bioinspired locomotion, actuation, sensing, and motion planning to develop an insect-scale robot. The robot will be able to traverse diverse terrains using multiple modes of locomotion, such as crawling, jumping, and gliding. The robot will navigate obstacle-filled environments based on sensory input and using sophisticated path planning algorithms. The interdisciplinarity of this team will allow us to develop a truly multifunctional and novel class of insect-scale robots capable of multimodal locomotion, perception, and planning.