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Nano Photonics-Based Micro Robotics

Final Report Summary - PHOTBOTS (Nano Photonics-Based Micro Robotics)

The PhotBots project was aimed at designing and creating tiny little robots and photonic components using materials that are extremely sensitive to light and can deform when illuminated. To that end, a special class of polymers were patterned into predefined structures with nanometer scale precision. These polymers, also called elastomers, can undergo different mechanical deformations depending on the type of alignment of their constituent molecules, making it possible to create simplified parts like insect bodies, legs and arms that can be actuated without the need of an internal power supply. In fact, these microscopic extremities respond to different illumination conditions converting the luminous energy into mechanical work. This allowed to fabricate the first robots smaller than 100 micrometers (smaller than the diameter of a human hair) exploiting light both in the fabrication process and even more relevant as their energy source. During the project, we have designed and realized several robots that could either swim in a liquid environment like water, walk on surfaces in a dry environment, or even grab microscopic elements. Very interestingly, we showed that it is possible to both remotely control their functionalities, or to let them decide autonomously their action patterns in response to the optical properties of the interaction target. Remarkably, considering the robot with walking capabilities, we were able to reach a full body size smaller than the smallest known living organism with walking locomotion. This was made possible by the very large force that these artificial ‘muscles’ can develop and apply to the substrate, overcoming the contact forces that dominate at such small length scales.
Using the same technological background and activation control, we also developed novel deformable photonic components and devices that are able to change their optical properties by finely rearranging their characteristic geometry upon illumination, opening to exciting applications of self-tuning optical feedback mechanisms in photonic applications.