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Water insects inspire tiny jumping robot

"We were fascinated by the fact that insects can actually jump on water quite well," researchers said of their inspiration.

By Brooks Hays
Water insects inspire tiny jumping robot
Researchers have designed a water strider robot with a nearly six-inch vertical leap. Photo by Harvard's Wyss Institute

BOSTON, Aug. 1 (UPI) -- Skinny-legged insects that quietly skate and jump across the surface of the water, called "water striders," were the inspiration for a newly designed robot, developed by scientists at Harvard's Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering and Seoul National University.

Before they set out to build their robot, the researchers first used slow-motion cameras to film water striders jump. The scientists honed in on the slight curvature at the end of the bugs' legs; the bowed tips seem to enable the creatures' launch, quiet and effortless.

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"Water's surface needs to be pressed at the right speed for an adequate amount of time, up to a certain depth, in order to achieve jumping," senior researcher Kyu Jin Cho, director of the Biorobotics Laboratory at Seoul National University, said in a press release. "The water strider is capable of doing all these things flawlessly."

Researchers imagine the robots, which float and jump on water, being deployed by the dozens -- to search for flood victims, for example.

Novel robotic insects developed by a team of Seoul National University and Harvard scientists can jump directly off water's surface.

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"We were fascinated by the fact that insects can actually jump on water quite well, something that humans or any engineered system cannot not replicate," the researchers wrote in a new paper on the feat, published in the journal Science.

The robot is no bigger than a thumb, and its nearly six-inch vertical jump is executed without breaking the water's surface.

"The resulting robotic insects can achieve the same momentum and height that could be generated during a rapid jump on firm ground -- but instead can do so on water -- by spreading out the jumping thrust over a longer amount of time and in sustaining prolonged contact with the water's surface," explained Robert Wood, a Harvard engineer.

Other engineering teams have built water-walking and water-jumping robots, but those efforts resulted in much bigger, heavier products. Researchers at Harvard and Seoul say their work, for the first time, emphasizes the central ergonomic principle -- the long, skinny, curve-tipped legs -- behind the water strider's effortless water-top acrobatics.

"This is due to their natural morphology," said Cho. "It is a form of embodied or physical intelligence, and we can learn from this kind of physical intelligence to build robots that are similarly capable of performing extreme maneuvers without highly-complex controls or artificial intelligence."

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