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Crushable robot insect sneers at fly swatters and shoes

These robust robots can work together in swarms for the good of humanity.

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This rugged little robot takes a licking and keeps on ticking.

EPFL

When fretting about an imaginary robot apocalypse, it's customary to worry about large robots like Boston Dynamics' Atlas and Spot. But have you considered the potential peril of swarms of tiny, unsquishable robo-insects? 

The DEAnsect, a fly-swatter-defying soft robot, could inspire all sorts of sci-fi fun, but its creators foresee a helpful future where the tiny bots work together for inspections, repairs or as remote emissaries sent to study real insect colonies.

A team at Ecole polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland developed the fast, agile robot. "DEAnsect is propelled by soft artificial muscles: It can be twisted, bent, squeezed, while retaining its functionality," EPFL said

A tethered version of the little robot can survive getting hit by a flyswatter or smacked by a shoe. 

"DEA" stands for "dielectric elastomer actuators," a type of artificial muscle that moves the robot forward through vibrations. The method of locomotion is adaptable to a variety of surfaces. 

An untethered version of DEAnsect carries a battery and electronic components on its back. EPFL describes it as an "intelligent insect" capable of following a line drawn on the ground. The researchers are working on fitting the robots with sensors and emitters that would allow them to communicate and coordinate with each other. 

The DEAnsect team got into the holiday spirit with a video showing a herd of five bots pulling a small Santa sleigh. It's  a cool preview of how they can work together as a swarm.

The DEAnsects join a stream of developments in insect-inspired robots in recent years. This trend includes the RoboFly, Walmart's interest in robotic bees and a NASA test of cicada-like drones. Don't worry about a Black Mirror future just yet, though. These creeping, crawling and flying robots are just here to help out humans (for now).

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