Inspired by marine microbial corals, researchers at Eindhoven University of technology in the Netherlands have developed a centimeter scale robot driven by magnets and light, foreign media reported. With the ability to grab and release objects underwater, the team envisioned a range of applications for its new machine, including collecting pollutants with tentacles and even capturing cells as biomedical tools.
This wireless aquatic robot is inspired by corals, small, soft organisms that combine in huge numbers to form coral reefs. The characteristic of these small animals is that the center of the stem will do a specific movement, generate a small current, and then attract food particles, so that their tentacles can grasp them. At this point, the researchers see some interesting possibilities.
“My inspiration comes from the movement of these corals, especially their ability to interact with the environment through self-made electric currents,” explained study author Marina Pilz da Cunha. Pilz da Cunha and her team recreated this by starting with a stem that moved under the influence of a rotating magnet below, allowing it to generate electricity in the surrounding water. This has the effect of attracting particles of pollutants in the water, which is then taken over by a light activated tentacle.
These tentacles are made of optomechanical polymer materials and can respond to different wavelengths of light. When exposed to ultraviolet light, the tentacles “grab” and blue light “release” them. In general, this creates a one centimeter long soft robot that can grasp small underwater objects with magnets and light.
“It’s rare to combine two different stimuli because it requires delicate material preparation and assembly, but it’s interesting to create unbounded robots because it allows for complex shape changes and tasks,” explains Pilz da Cunha.
In one experiment, the team demonstrated the ability of its coral inspired robot by having it capture oil droplets from water samples. As an additional layer of functionality, it can also keep the robot in a new shape, such as a “grab” state, until it is exposed to the right light. “This helps to control the grabbing arm; once something is grabbed, the robot can hold it until it is stimulated by light again before releasing it.” Pilz da Cunha said.
For the next step, the team is trying to produce a team of its small robots that could work together to transport particles, one of which passes them on to the next. Later, the team envisions using them to capture and transport specific cells as part of advanced diagnostic equipment. The results have been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.