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One giant leap for micro-robots

Alain Herzog / EPFL
 Click for video: Watch

 how a micro-robot copies 

 a grasshopper's flight.

Swiss researchers have unveiled a grasshopper-sized robot capable of jumping more than 4 feet (1.4 meters) high - marking a new record for robo-hoppers. The 2-inch-tall (5-centimeter-tall) contraption could blaze a trail for future rescue robots or swarms of interplanetary explorers, according to its developers.

The robot was shown off today at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Pasadena, Calif., by researchers from the Laboratory of Intelligent Systems at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne. It's the latest breed of machines based on biomimetics - the technological strategy of building mechanical systems that mimic what animals do.

The robo-grasshopper, which weighs just a quarter of an ounce (7 grams) joins robotic versions of salamanders, birdsinchworms, water skimmers, dinosaurs, even robo-bacteria and robo-beetles.

For years, researchers have talked about developing hopping robots that could be dropped off on Mars and jump around the Red Planet's rugged terrain, serving as scouts, samplers or communication relays. The Swiss scientists say their hoppers could fill the bill.

"This biomimetic form of jumping is unique because it allows micro-robots to travel over many types of rough terrain where no other walking or wheeled robot could go," Professor Dario Floreano said in a news release. "These tiny jumping robots could be fitted with solar cells to recharge between jumps and deployed in swarms for extended exploration of remote areas on Earth or on other planets."

Closer to home, the hoppers could be sent in to survey a disaster scene and look for survivors, just as bigger robo-search parties did in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

The Swiss institute said the researchers took their cue from small jumping creatures such as fleas, locusts, grasshoppers and frogs - which use elastic storage mechanisms for a slow buildup and a fast release of leaping energy. The robo-hopper charges two torsion springs with a 0.6-gram pager motor and a cam. The micro-machine's onboard battery provides enough juice for up to 320 jumps at intervals of 3 seconds, the researchers said.

Today's report from New Scientist notes at least one problem that still has to be resolved: getting the robot to right itself after a jump and move ahead in a desired direction. Floreano was quoted as saying some refinements would be added, such as grasshopper-style wings as well as solar panels, silicon sensors and smarts. That comes at a cost: The more you load up a hopper, the lower it will go.

Floreano's colleague at the Swiss lab, Mirko Kovak, presented the biomimetic research at sessions in Pasadena today and will also demonstrate the hopper next month in a "robot zoo" at the International Symposium on Adaptive Motion of Animals and Machines in Cleveland.