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New Micro-Robotic Systems featuring Piezoelectric Adaptive MicroStructures for Sensing and Actuating, with Associated Embedded Control

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A micro-sized robot wins the race

EU funding enabled European researchers to develop a world-class miniature robot with a variety of potential applications in robotics and micro-manufacturing.

Industrial Technologies

Adaptronics is a state-of-the-art multidisciplinary field focused on the development of mechano-electrical systems capable of adaptive control, i.e. self-adapting in response to changes in environmental conditions. Microrobotics and micro-manufacturing systems for assembling microscopic components are among the most promising applications of adaptronics. Adaptive systems have many complex components and functions. Smart (active) materials such as those that respond to a change in pressure with a change in electrical output and vice versa (piezoelectric materials) are often at the heart of adaptive devices. They also included sensors to determine changes in certain parameters and actuators to affect an appropriate response. Finally, they require control technology to coordinate working of all the parts together. Such systems have very strict performance requirements including nanometre resolution and millisecond response time. The fast, precise, miniature sensors required for microrobotic applications are currently lacking. European scientists sought to fill this gap with EU funding of the Micropads project. Micropads focused on developing centi/millimetre active structures that integrated actuating and sensing functions together with embedded control technology on the same piezoelectric material. Scientists first researched new materials and processing techniques. They identified a new generation of piezoelectric materials (lead magnesium niobate-lead titanate crystals, PMN-PT) in combination with silicon as the most promising for development of high-performance microsystems. The consortium then designed innovative microactuators and micro-grippers based on a combination of thermal and piezoelectric principles (so-called hybrid thermopiezoelectric actuators) for which a patent is pending. Development of embedded measurement systems for the piezoelectric microactuators enabled use of the piezoelectric system as both actuator and sensor with measurement and control embedded in one electronic board. The systems facilitated better signals at lower cost and with a much smaller space requirement. Building on the new technology, the Micropads consortium created a mobile microrobot. The amazing device placed first at the prestigious Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers International Conference on Robotics and Automation (IEEE ICRA) and set a world record in a robotic race. The Micropads consortium thus developed cutting-edge adaptronics with virtually limitless applications.

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