Robot tentacles are gentle enough to ‘hug’ ants

The microrobotic tentacles are ideal for medical applications because they can't damage tissues or even blood vessels, says Jaeyoun (Jay) Kim. (Credit: tanakawho/Flickr)

A microrobotic tentacle demonstrated its utility when the tiny tube circled an ant’s thorax and gently trapped the insect.

“Most robots use two fingers and to pick things up they have to squeeze,” says Jaeyoun (Jay) Kim, an Iowa State University associate professor of electrical and computer engineering and an associate of the US Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory. “But these tentacles wrap around very gently.”

And that makes them perfect hands and fingers for small robots designed to safely handle delicate objects.

micro-tentacle and ant
A micro-tentacle spirals around an ant. (Credit: Jaeyoun (Jay) Kim)

The researchers describe the spiraling microrobotic tentacles in Scientific Reports.

The paper describes how the engineers fabricated microtubes just 8 millimeters long and less than a hundredth of an inch wide. They’re made from PDMS, a transparent elastomer that can be a liquid or a soft, rubbery solid.

Kim, whose research focus is micro-electro-mechanical systems, has worked with the material for about a decade and has patented a process for making thin wires from it.

Tentacle challenges

The paper also describes how the researchers sealed one end of the tube and pumped air in and out. The air pressure and the microtube’s asymmetrical wall thickness created a circular bend. They further describe how they added a small lump of PDMS to the base of the tube to amplify the bend and create a two-turn spiraling, coiling action.

And that’s just what the engineers wanted:

“Spiraling tentacles are widely utilized in nature for grabbing and squeezing objects,” the engineers write in the paper. “There have been continuous soft-robotic efforts to mimic them . . . but the life-like, multi-turn spiraling motion has been reproduced only by centimeter-scale tentacles so far. At millimeter and sub-millimeter scales, they could bend only up to a single turn.”

It took a lot of problem-solving to create the extra turn in the microrobotic tentacles. “Yes, we scratched our heads a lot,” says Kim, lead author of the paper.

Soft and tiny

The engineers had to develop new production techniques to create the microtubes. They had to figure out how to peel the microtubes off a production template. And they had to use computer modeling to find a way to create more coiling.

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Kim says the resulting microrobotic tentacle is “S-cubed—soft, safe, and small.” He says those qualities make it ideal for medical applications because the microrobotic tentacles can’t damage tissues or even blood vessels.

Kim says the project is a nice combination of two new trends in robotics:

“There’s microrobotics, where people want to make robots smaller and smaller. And there’s soft robotics, where people don’t want to make robots out of iron and steel. This project is an overlap of both of those fields. I want to pioneer new work in the field with both microscale and soft robotics.”

The National Science Foundation supports Kim’s work.

Source: Iowa State University