Robotic lightning bolts take flight


Inspired by fireflies, MIT researchers have created flexible actuators that can emit light in different colors or patterns. (Picture: The Researchers)

The fireflies that light up dark backyards on warm summer evenings use their luminescence for communication – to attract a mate, ward off predators or attract prey.

These twinkling insects sparked the inspiration of MIT scientists. Inspired by nature, they built flexible light-emitting artificial muscles for insect-scale flying robots. The tiny artificial muscles that control the robots’ wings emit colored light during flight.

This electroluminescence could allow robots to communicate with each other. If sent on a search and rescue mission in a collapsed building, for example, a robot that finds survivors could use lights to signal others and call for help.

The ability to emit light also brings these microscopic robots, which weigh little more than a paperclip, one step closer to autonomous flight outside the lab. These robots are so light they can’t carry sensors, so researchers have had to track them using bulky infrared cameras that don’t work well outdoors. Now they’ve shown they can track the robots precisely using the light they emit and just three smartphone cameras.

“If you think of large-scale robots, they can communicate using a lot of different tools – Bluetooth, wireless, all those sorts of things. But for a small robot with limited power, we had to think about new modes of communication. This is a major step towards piloting these robots in outdoor environments where we don’t have a state-of-the-art motion tracking system,” said Prof. Kevin Chen.

He and his collaborators achieved this by incorporating tiny light-emitting particles into the artificial muscles. The process adds only 2.5% more weight without affecting the robot’s flight performance.

These researchers previously demonstrated a new fabrication technique for building flexible actuators, or artificial muscles, that flap the robot’s wings. These durable actuators are made by alternating ultra-thin layers of elastomer and carbon nanotube electrodes in a stack, then rolling them into a spongy cylinder. When a voltage is applied to the cylinder, the electrodes compress the elastomer and the mechanical stress causes the wing to flap.

To make a glowing actuator, the team incorporated light-emitting zinc sulfate particles into the elastomer, but had to overcome several challenges along the way.

First, the researchers had to create an electrode that wouldn’t block light. They built it using highly transparent carbon nanotubes, which are only a few nanometers thick and allow light to pass through.

However, zinc particles ignite only in the presence of a very strong high frequency electric field. This electric field excites the electrons in the zinc particles, which then emit subatomic particles of light — photons. The researchers use high voltage to create a strong electric field in the soft actuator, then drive the robot at a high frequency, causing the particles to light up brightly.

“Traditionally, electroluminescent materials are very energy-intensive, but in a sense we get that electroluminescence for free because we’re just using the electric field at the frequency we need to fly. We don’t need new actuation, new wires or anything. It only takes about three percent more energy to shine the light,” Kevin Chen said.

While prototyping the actuator, they discovered that adding zinc particles reduced its quality, causing it to break down more easily. To circumvent this problem, Kim mixed zinc particles only in the top layer of elastomer. He thickened this layer by a few micrometers to accommodate any reduction in power output. Although this makes the actuator 2.5% heavier, it emits light without affecting flight performance.

Adjusting the chemical combination of the zinc particles changes the color of the light. The researchers made green, orange and blue particles for the actuators they built; each actuator shines in a solid color.

They also changed the manufacturing process so that the actuators could emit multicolored and patterned light. The researchers placed a tiny mask on the top layer, added zinc particles, then hardened the actuator. They repeated this process three times with different masks and colored particles to create a light pattern that spelled MIT.

After refining the manufacturing process, they tested the mechanical properties of the actuators and used a luminescence meter to measure the intensity of the light.

From there, they conducted flight tests using a specially designed motion tracking system. Each light-emitting actuator served as an active marker that could be tracked using iPhone cameras. The cameras detect every color of light, and a computer program they developed tracks the position and attitude of the robots within 2 millimeters of state-of-the-art infrared motion capture systems.

“We are very proud of the quality of the tracking result, compared to the state of the art. We were using inexpensive hardware, compared to the tens of thousands of dollars that these large motion tracking systems cost, and the follow-up results were very close,” Chen said.

In the future, they plan to improve their motion tracking system so that it can track robots in real time. The team is working to incorporate control signals so the robots can turn their light on and off during flight and communicate more like real fireflies. They are also studying how electroluminescence might even improve some properties of soft artificial muscles.

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