If a pancake could dream it could long for legs to jump off your breakfast plate in search of a better, chewed life.

But legs, it turns out, aren’t necessary for something as flat as a flapjack to hop around. A group of scientists has developed a tortilla-shaped robot that can jump several times per second and more than seven times its height by half a centimeter. They report that the robot, which is the size of a crushed tennis ball and weighs about the same as a paper clip, performs these feats nimbly and with no appearance of feet. Her research was published in the journal on Tuesday Nature communication.

Shuguang Li, a robotist at Harvard who was not involved in the research, described the new robot as “a clever idea” and “an important contribution to the field of soft robotics”.

Many terrestrial robots, those that are more at home on the ground than in the air or in the water, move by rolling or walking. But the ability to jump can help a terrestrial robot traverse new spaces and navigate rough terrain; Sometimes it is more efficient for a robot to jump over an obstacle than to avoid it, wrote Rui Chen, researcher at Chongqing University in China and author of the study, in an email.

Although jumping can give some robots a competitive advantage, developing this skill has been a challenge for robotics researchers. Some soft robots that store energy can very rarely make a single impressive jump. Some lightweight soft robots that do not store energy can hop around very frequently, but cannot jump high or far enough to successfully overcome an obstacle such as a curb.

The ideal jumping robot would be able to jump high and far frequently. But “these two aspirations are contradicting one another,” said Dr. Chen. Jumping higher or farther requires more energy, and jumping more frequently requires energy to be accumulated and released in less time – a huge task for a tiny robot.

As inspiration, the researchers looked for gall mosquito larvae, maggots, the hurling miraculously over distances 30 times as long as their log-like bodies, which are a tenth of an inch long. “Most creatures need feet to jump,” said Dr. Chen, adding that the larvae “can jump” by bending their bodies. The maggot squeezes into the shape of a ring – holding its head to its bum with special sticky hair – and pushes fluid to one end of its body, causing it to become stiff. The build-up of fluid builds up pressure, and the release of the pressure causes the maggots to skyrocket.

The robot’s disc-shaped body doesn’t resemble that of a gall mosquito larva, but it jumps like one. His body consists of two plastic bags printed with electrodes; the front pocket is filled with liquid and the rear pocket is filled with the same amount of air. The robot uses static electricity to drive the flow of liquid to deform parts of its body, which causes the body to bend and create a force with the floor, resulting in a jump. And the air bag mimics the function of an animal’s tail and helps the robot maintain a stable position when jumping and landing.

This design enables the robot to jump 7.68 times its height and achieve a continuous jump speed of six body lengths per second – a speed that Dr. Li described as “very impressive”.

This enabled the robot to jump quickly and continuously. But could it overcome obstacles? To find out, the researchers subjected the tiny robot to numerous tests that might deserve such an inspiring film montage as Sylvester Stallone’s training in “Rocky. “

The robot had to cross various gravel hills, slopes, and wires. It had to jump over a five millimeter high round step and cross an eight millimeter high empty ring – monumental barriers for a four millimeter tall robot with a body like a pancake. The amateur acrobat easily, if not gracefully, passed all of these tests.

The robot can also change direction on its own, around 138 degrees per second – the fastest turning speed of any gently jumping robot, said Dr. Chen. Similar to a car, the robot can control itself by continuously turning, says Wenqi Hu, a senior scientist at the Max Planck Institute in Germany who was not involved in the research.

The robot is dependent on external energy that is fed by electrical lines. The researchers would like to make the robot wireless in future iterations, but keeping the robot small and light will be a challenge, said Dr. Chen.

“I wonder if adding an on-board power source would be a challenge for this tiny soft jumper,” said Dr. Li.

The researchers suggest integrating sensors into the tiny robot so that it can detect environmental conditions such as pollutants in buildings. Dr. Li suggested that eventually the robot could inspect hard-to-reach areas of large industrial machinery or, if equipped with a small camera, it could be used in search and rescue missions for trapped people or animals as it navigates small spaces in disaster areas. And, he added, the robot is tiny and cheap. “It would probably only cost a few dollars to build,” said Dr. Li.

Although the robot is currently confined to Earth, Dr. Hu suggested that he could be home to explore another planet. “This type of task requires a simple but sturdy miniature robot design,” which is light enough to be carried into new worlds, said Dr. Hu, adding that the materials needed to build this robot would have to survive and function in alien environments.

If so, the researchers’ robot could jump over dusty rocks and craters on the moon or Mars and go where no pancake has been before.

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