A fairy-like robot flies by the power of wind and light — ScienceDaily

A fairy-like robot flies by the power of wind and light — ScienceDaily

The development of stimuli-responsive polymers has brought a wealth of materials-related opportunities for the next generation of small-scale, wirelessly controlled soft-body robots. Engineers have known for some time how to use these materials to make small robots that can walk, swim and jump. So far no one has been able to make them fly.

Researchers from the Light Robots group at Tampere University are now investigating how to make smart materials fly. Hao Zeng, Academy Research Fellow and the group leader, and Jianfeng Yang, a doctoral researcher, came up with a new design for their project called FAIRY – Flying Aero-robots based on Light Responsive Materials Assembly. They developed a polymer composite robot that flies by wind and is controlled by light.

“More than its natural counterparts, this artificial seed is equipped with a soft actuator. The actuator is made of light-responsive liquid crystalline elastomer, which causes opening or closing actions of the hair upon visible light excitation,” explains Hao Zeng.

The fairy is controlled by light

The artificial fairy developed by Zeng and Yang has several biomimetic features. Due to its high porosity (0.95) and lightweight (1.2 mg) structure, it can easily float in the air directed by the wind. What’s more, a stable separated vortex ring generation enables long-range wind-assisted travel.

“The fairy can be powered and controlled by a light source, such as a laser beam or LED,” says Zeng.

This means that light can be used to change the shape of the tiny dandelion seed-like structure. The fairy can manually adjust to wind direction and strength by changing its shape. A light beam can also be used to control the take-off and landing actions of the polymer assembly.

Potential application opportunities in agriculture

Next, the researchers will focus on improving the material sensitivity to enable the operation of the device in sunlight. In addition, they will scale up the structure to carry microelectronic devices such as GPS and sensors as well as biochemical compounds.

According to Zeng, there is potential for even more meaningful applications.

“It sounds like science fiction, but the proof-of-concept experiments included in our research show that the robot we developed provides an important step towards realistic applications suitable for artificial pollination,” he reveals.

In the future, millions of artificial dandelion seeds carrying pollen could be freely dispersed by natural winds and then sent by light to specific areas with trees awaiting pollination.

“This will have a major impact on agriculture worldwide as the loss of pollinators due to global warming has become a serious threat to biodiversity and food production,” says Zeng.

Challenges remain to be resolved

However, many problems must be solved first. For example, how to control the landing site in a precise way, and how to reuse the devices and make them biodegradable? These issues require close collaboration with materials scientists and people working on microrobotics.

The FAIRY project started in September 2021 and will last until August 2026. It is funded by the Academy of Finland. The flying robot is being researched in collaboration with dr. Wenqi Hu from Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems (Germany) and dr. Hang Zhang from Aalto University.

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