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Water-walking robot takes cue from insects

New aquatic microrobot out of China can walk and turn freely on the surface of water by mimicking insects that can do the same.

Water-striding bot
American Chemical Society

While some people who idolize robots might say the machines walk on water, a new microbot out of China actually does.

The robot was built to imitate the capabilities of water-striding insects such as mosquitoes and water spiders, which can walk and even jump on water without drowning thanks to their highly water-repellent legs. The robot is about 6 inches long and uses 10 water-repellent supporting wire legs and 2 movable, oar-like legs propelled by two mini motors to maneuver like a real water strider. It also looks great in a caterpillar Speedo.

While the new microrobot weighs as much as about 390 water striders, it's still able to walk (at a speed of about 6 inches per second), stand, and turn freely on water surfaces without sinking. The scientists say the radius and contact angle of the legs mainly accounts for the large supporting force.

The water-loving bot, which is detailed in the journal ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces, isn't the first robot to mimic insects, nor is it the first aquatic robot to do so.

However, the scientists say the motion of a water strider-like microrobot on the water's surface had rarely been studied and their work yields valuable insights into making a bot that's speedy, agile, and inexpensive enough to fabricate that it could potentially have broad applications in water quality surveillance, water pollution monitoring, and the like.

To make the biomimetic bot, which weighs 3.88 grams (less than a quarter of an ounce), the researchers from the Harbin Institute of Technology's School of Chemical Engineering and Technology carefully analyzed water striders' locomotion to better understand exactly how the creatures get around the local pond. (For way more technical details on factors like the maximal vertical depth of water striders' legs and the volume of the resulting "water dimples," visit this PDF on the research [subscription required].)

Note: No Jesus-bot jokes were made in the writing of this blog.