One of nature’s tiniest acrobats inspired a leaping robot

One of nature’s tiniest acrobats inspired a leaping robot

The springtail is a fascinating semi-aquatic invertebrate that can escape predators by leaping impressively ten times its height, performing a midair turn, and landing atop water’s surface. Although there are thousands of springtail species, this close relative to the flea is still relatively unknown despite its amazing capabilities. Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology (and South Korea’s Ajou university) have gained a better understanding of the creature’s acrobatic abilities and were able to mimic its movements using a penny-sized robotic imitator. These implications could have a significant impact on robot movement, even larger than a springtail-sized grain. The authors recently published their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

[Related: Watch a snake wearing robot trousers strut like a lizard. ]

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Per a recent report from The New York Times, biologists and keen-eyed observers previously believed springtails’ evasive maneuvers were largely random and uncontrolled. A furcula is the key to springtails’ gymnastics. It is a tiny organ that slaps water beneath it to propel the animal into the air. In less than 20 milliseconds following liftoff (a world record for speed, by the way) springtails manage to orient themselves so as to land on their hydrophilic collophores–tubelike appendages capable of holding water and sticking to surfaces, thus allowing the springtails to sit comfortable atop ponds and lakes.

[Relate: Watch this penny-sized soft robot paddle with hydrogel fins. ]

Using a combination of machine training and observations, researchers were then able to construct a tiny, relatively simple robot that mimics springtails’ movements, down to their ability to accurately land around 75 percent of the time. Actual springtails, by comparison, stick 85 percent of their landings.

While extremely small, the robotic springtails’ results could help developments in the fields of engineering, robotics, and hydrodynamics, according to Kathryn Dickson, a program director at the National Science Foundation which partially funded the research, via a news release. Researchers hope that further study and fine-tuning will enable them to gain insight into the evolutionary origins and evolution of flight in different organisms as well as apply their advances on small robots used in waterborne and airborne studies.

Andrew Paul

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