Meet CLARI, a tiny insect-like robot that can shape-shift

Engineers at CU Boulder have developed CLARI, a robot that can change its shape like an insect and squeeze through narrow gaps.
Rizwan Choudhury
CLARI's modular design.
CLARI's modular design.

Credit: Casey Cass/CU Boulder 

Inspired by the sheer tenacity and adaptability of insects, a team of engineers at the University of Colorado, Boulder (CU Boulder), has developed a ground-breaking miniature robot—CLARI (Compliant Legged Articulated Robotic Insect)—that can alter its form to maneuver through tight spaces. With its shape-shifting abilities, this little machine could revolutionize disaster response operations.

Portable and lightweight

Smaller than the palm of a human hand and lighter than a Ping Pong ball, CLARI can change its physique from a square to a narrow, elongated form, enabling it to squeeze through constricted areas. In a media release, Heiko Kabutz, a doctoral candidate at CU Boulder’s Paul M. Rady Department of Mechanical Engineering, emphasized, "CLARI's ability to passively adapt to its surroundings makes it an ideal candidate for roles we haven’t even thought of yet."

The researchers unveiled their innovative design in a study published on August 30 in the academic journal "Advanced Intelligent Systems."

Modular flexibility

With its current four-legged structure, CLARI is modular by design. This flexibility allows for a wide array of adjustments, including adding more legs. Kabutz envisions an eight-legged, spider-inspired robot capable of traversing webs. "The modular design opens a realm of possibilities, transforming it into a versatile tool with a variety of applications," Kabutz added.

Despite its promise, CLARI is still tethered by wires that provide power and basic command inputs. Assistant Professor Kaushik Jayaram, co-author of the study, looks forward to a day when these mini-robots will roam autonomously. “CLARI is in the early stages, but the goal is to create robots that can venture into spaces where no mechanical entity has gone before, such as the inside of jet engines or under the debris of collapsed buildings,” Jayaram noted.

Jayaram, who has a background in designing robots modeled after the animal kingdom, challenges the conventional cube-like robot structure. “Animals come in a myriad of forms; why should robots be any different?" he queried.

The cockroach connection

Before his work on CLARI, Jayaram designed a robot at the University of California, Berkeley, that mimicked a cockroach's ability to squeeze through tight vertical spaces. He views that endeavor as just the beginning. "Animal world offers a plethora of design inspirations. Why just mimic one compression method when there are multiple ways animals adapt to confined spaces?" Jayaram elaborated.

CLARI takes that philosophy a step further by focusing on squeezing through horizontal gaps. The robot can alter its width from 34 millimeters (approximately 1.3 inches) to a slim 21 millimeters (around 0.8 inches), allowing for a wide range of motion and adaptability.

The path ahead

Jayaram and Kabutz are not stopping at mere shape-shifting abilities. They plan to integrate sensors to help CLARI autonomously detect and avoid obstacles. There is also ongoing research to strike the right balance between flexibility and strength, particularly as more legs are added to the robot.

"Imagine a robot that can traverse uneven natural terrain, bounce off obstructions like blades of grass, or crawl through cracks in rocks. That's the future we’re aiming for," said Kabutz.

The development of CLARI could herald a new era in robotics with its small size, adaptability, and modular design. These characteristics could make it an invaluable asset for first responders in disaster-stricken areas or even for intricate tasks like internal engine inspection.

As Kabutz aptly put it, "If we can build robots with the capabilities of spiders or flies, we can start to explore areas hitherto inaccessible. The sky is literally not the limit."

For now, CLARI remains a prototype with monumental potential, offering a fascinating glimpse into the future of robotics—inspired by the creatures it aims to emulate.

The study was published in the journal Advanced Intelligent Systems.

Study abstract

Miniature robots provide unprecedented access to confined environments and show potential for applications such as search-and-rescue and high-value asset inspection. The capability of body deformation further enhances the reachability of these small robots in cluttered terrains similar to those of insects and soft arthropods. Motivated by this concept, compliant legged articulated robotic insect (CLARI), an insect-scale 2.59 g quadrupedal robot capable of body deformation, is presented. The robot, currently, with tethered electrical connections for power and control is manufactured using laminate fabrication and assembled using origami pop-up techniques. To enable locomotion in multiple shape configurations, a novel body architecture comprising modular, actuated leg mechanisms, is designed. CLARI has eight independently actuated degrees of freedom driven by custom piezoelectric actuators, making it mechanically dextrous. Herein, open-loop robot locomotion at multiple stride frequencies (1–10 Hz) is characterized using multiple gaits (trot, walk, etc.) in three different fixed body shapes (long, symmetric, wide) and the robot's capabilities are illustrated. Finally, preliminary results of CLARI locomoting with a compliant body in open terrain and through a laterally constrained gap, a novel capability for legged robots, is demonstrated. These results represent the first step toward achieving effective cluttered terrain navigation with adaptable compliant robots in real-world environments.

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