High Lift Insect-Scale Aerial Robot by Low-Voltage and Long-Endurance Dielectric Elastomer Actuators (DEAs)
Dr. Zhijian Ren
Our lab aims to develop micro-scale robotic systems that can demonstrate insect-like locomotive capabilities in aerial, aquatic, and terrestrial environments. To design highly agile, multifunctional, and robust micro-scale robots, we work on develop high bandwidth and robust soft actuators and active materials for locomotion and manipulation. Meanwhile, we develop design and fabrication tools suitable for rapid prototyping of hybrid soft-rigid robots. In this work, we propose and fabricate a low voltage, high endurance, and power-dense dielectric elastomer actuator (DEA) based on novel multiple-layering techniques and electrode material optimization. When operated at 400 Hz, the 143 mg DEA generates forces of 0.36 N and displacements of 1.15 mm. This DEA is incorporated into an aerial robot to demonstrate high performance. The robot achieves a high lift-to-weight ratio of 3.7, low hovering voltage of 500 V, and a long lifetime that exceeds 2 million actuation cycles. With 20 seconds of hovering time, and position and attitude error smaller than 2.5 cm and 2°, the robot demonstrates the longest and best performing flight among existing sub-gram aerial robots. This important milestone demonstrates that soft robots can outperform the state-of-the-art rigid counterparts, and it provides an important step towards realizing power autonomy in soft robotic flights.
Zhijian Ren is a PhD student in the department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) at MIT. He received his master’s degree in mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in 2020 and bachelor’s degree in automation at Shanghai Jiao Tong University (SJTU) in 2018. His research focuses on the actuation, sensing and control of soft and bio-inspired robots. He is a recipient of Grass Instrument Company Fellowship and MathWorks Fellowship at MIT. His paper was selected as the recipient of the 2021 IEEE Transactions on Robotics King-Sun Fu Memorial Best Paper Award. During his undergraduate studies, his research project was awarded as one of the outstanding innovation projects at SJTU.