Published: Oct. 31, 2023

Assistant Professor Kaushik Jayaram’s Animal Inspired Movement and Robotics Laboratory recently won the IROS Best Paper Award on Safety, Security, and Rescue Robotics, rising above around 3,000 other academic papers that were submitted to the IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems. Along with Jayaram as the PI of the lab, PhD student Heiko Kabutz was the lead researcher of the paper, and PhD students Alex Hedrick and Parker McDonnell were coauthors, as well.

Their paper titled mCLARI: a shape-morphing insect-scale robot capable of omnidirectional terrain-adaptive locomotion in laterally confined spaces, improves upon their previous miniature shape-morphing robot to demonstrate the ability to passively change its shape to squeeze through narrow gaps in multiple directions. This is a new capability for legged robots, let alone insect-scale systems, that enables significantly enhanced maneuverability in cluttered environments, and has the potential to aid first responders after major disasters.

Kabutz and Jayaram’s latest version is scaled down 60% in length and 38% in mass, while maintaining 80% of the actuation power. The robot weighs less than a gram but can support over three times its body weight as an additional payload. It is also over three times as fast as its predecessor reaching running speeds of 60 millimeters per second, or three of its body lengths per second.

Check out their video of mCLARI here:

With the latest breakthrough that Jayaram and Kabutz have now achieved with their research, they are able to scale down (or up), their design without sacrificing design integrity bringing such robots closer in size to real-world application needs.

“Since these robots can deform, you can still have slightly larger sizes,” Jayaram said. “If you have a slightly larger size, you can carry more weight, you can have more sensors, you'll have a longer lifetime and be more stable. But when you need to be, you can squish through and go through those specific gaps.”

Kabutz, who leads the design of the mClari, has surgeon-like hands that allow him to build and fold the tiny legs of the robot. Kabutz grew up fascinated by robots and competed in robotic competitions in high school.

“Initially, I was interested in building bigger robots,” said Kabutz, “but when I came to Jayaram’s lab, he really got me interested in building bioinspired robots at the insect scale.”

Jayaram’s research team studies concepts from biology and applies them to the design of real-world engineered systems. In his lab, you can find robots modeled after the body morphologies of various arthropods including cockroaches and spiders. 

“We are fundamentally interested in understanding why animals are the way they are and move the way they do,” said Jayaram, “and how we can build bioinspired robots that can address social needs, like search and rescue, environmental monitoring, or even use them during surgery.”