Researchers have developed robotic fingers that let you interact with insects
Entomophilous out there, ever wanted to cuddle a bug? Brush through the tiny wings of a dragonfly? Tickle insects? Researchers in Japan have created what you've always wanted - a soft micro-robotic finger that allows humans to directly interact with insects at previously inaccessible scales.
Previously, we did have access to insect environments. For example, microbots could interact with the environment at much smaller scales, and microsensors were used to measure forces exerted by insects during flight or walking. However, most of these studies only focused on measuring insect behavior instead of direct insect-microsensor interaction.
Now, researchers from Ritsumeikan University in Japan have developed a soft micro-robotic finger that can enable direct interaction with the microworld. Led by Professor Satoshi Konishi, the study was published in Scientific Reports.
"A tactile micro finger is achieved by using a liquid metal flexible strain sensor. A soft pneumatic balloon actuator acts as an artificial muscle, allowing control and finger-like movement of the sensor. With a robotic glove, a human user can directly control the micro fingers. This kind of system allows for safe interaction with insects and other microscopic objects," Konishi said in a statement.
The study showed great promise towards realizing direct human interaction with insects
As a representative sample of an insect, the researchers used a pill bug. It was fixed in place with the help of a suction tool, and the newly-developed micro finger was used to apply a force and measure the reaction force of the bug's legs.
The reaction force measured from the legs of the pill bug was approximately 10 mN (millinewtons), which was similar to previously estimated values. Though the study was a proof-of-concept, it shows "great promise" towards working out direct human interactions with the microworld.
"With our strain-sensing micro finger, we were able to directly measure the pushing motion and force of the legs and torso of a pill bug—something that has been impossible to achieve previously. We anticipate that our results will lead to further technological development for micro finger-insect interactions, leading to human-environment interactions at much smaller scales," added Konishi.
Human-robot interaction technology has contributed to improving sociality for humanoid robots. At scales far from human scales, a microrobot can interact with an environment in a small world. Microsensors have been applied to the measurement of forces by flying or walking insects. Meanwhile, most previous works focused on the measurement of the behavior of insects. Here, we propose microrobot-insect interactions by soft microfingers integrated with artificial muscle actuators and tactile sensors, which has been developed for a haptic teleoperation robot system. A soft pneumatic balloon actuator acts as the artificial muscle, and a flexible strain sensor using a liquid metal provides tactile sensing. Force interaction between a pill bug and the microfinger could be accomplished. The microfinger (12 mm × 3 mm × 490 μm) can move and touch an insect, and it can detect reaction force from an insect. The measured reaction force from the legs of a pill bug as a representative insect was less than 10 mN. This paper presents a microfinger as an end effector for the active sensing of reaction force from a small insect. We anticipate that our results will lead to further evaluation of small living things as well as technology development for human–environment interaction.