Researchers at the Faculty of Physics at the University of Warsaw, using the liquid crystal elastomer technology, demonstrated a bioinspired micro-robot
capable of mimicking caterpillar gaits in natural scale. The 15-millimeter long soft robot harvests energy from green light and is controlled by spatially modulated laser beam. Apart from travelling on flat surfaces, it can also climb slopes, squeeze through narrow slits and transport loads.
For decades scientists and engineers have been trying to build robots mimicking different modes of locomotion found in nature. Most of these designs have rigid skeletons and joints driven by electric or pneumatic actuators. In nature, however, a vast number of creatures navigate their habitats using soft bodies - earthworms, snails and larval insects can effectively move in complex environments using different strategies. Up to date, attempts to create soft robots were limited to larger scale (typically tens of centimeters), mainly due to difficulties in power management and remote control.
Liquid Crystalline Elastomers (LCEs) are smart materials that can exhibit large shape change under illumination with visible light. With the recently developed techniques, it is possible to pattern these soft materials into arbitrary three dimensional forms with a pre-defined actuation performance. The light-induced deformation allows a monolithic LCE structure to perform complex actions without numerous discrete actuators.