MIT researchers have created soft actuators that can emit light in different colors or patterns. (Image: Courtesy of Kevin Chen, Suhan Kim,et al)

Fireflies have sparked the inspiration of MIT researchers. Taking a cue from nature, they built electroluminescent soft artificial muscles for flying, insect-scale robots. The tiny artificial muscles that control the robots’ wings emit colored light during flight.

This electroluminescence could enable the robots to communicate with each other. If sent on a search-and-rescue mission into a collapsed building, for instance, a robot that finds survivors could use lights to signal others and call for help.

The ability to emit light also brings these microscale robots, which weigh barely more than a paper clip, one step closer to flying on their own outside the lab. These robots are so lightweight that they can’t carry sensors, so researchers must track them using bulky infrared cameras that don’t work well outdoors. Now, they’ve shown that they can track the robots using the light they emit and just three smartphone cameras.

“If you think of large-scale robots, they can communicate using a lot of different tools — Bluetooth, wireless, all those sorts of things. But for a tiny, power-constrained robot, we are forced to think about new modes of communication. This is a major step toward flying these robots in outdoor environments where we don’t have a well-tuned, state-of-the-art motion tracking system,” said Kevin Chen, the D. Reid Weedon, Jr. Assistant Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) and the head of the Soft and Micro Robotics Laboratory in the Research Laboratory of Electronics (RLE).

He and his collaborators accomplished this by embedding miniscule electroluminescent particles into the artificial muscles. To fabricate a glowing actuator, the team incorporated electroluminescent zinc sulphate particles into the elastomer but had to overcome several challenges along the way. First, the researchers had to create an electrode that would not block light. They built it using highly transparent carbon nanotubes, which are only a few nanometers thick and enable light to pass through.

However, the zinc particles only light up in the presence of a very strong and high-frequency electric field. This electric field excites the electrons in the zinc particles, which then emit subatomic particles of light known as photons. The researchers use high voltage to create a strong electric field in the soft actuator, and then drive the robot at a high frequency, which enables the particles to light up brightly.

“Traditionally, electroluminescent materials are very energetically costly, but in a sense, we get that electroluminescence for free because we just use the electric field at the frequency we need for flying. We don’t need new actuation, new wires, or anything. It only takes about 3 percent more energy to shine out light,” said Kevin Chen.

As they prototyped the actuator, they found that adding zinc particles reduced its quality, causing it to break down more easily. To get around this, Kim mixed zinc particles into the top elastomer layer only. He made that layer a few micrometers thicker to accommodate for any reduction in output power. While this made the actuator 2.5 percent heavier, it emitted light without impacting flight performance.

Adjusting the chemical combination of the zinc particles changes the light color. The researchers made green, orange, and blue particles for the actuators they built; each actuator shines one solid color.

They also tweaked the fabrication process so the actuators could emit multicolored and patterned light. Once they had finetuned the fabrication process, they tested the mechanical properties of the actuators and used a luminescence meter to measure the intensity of the light.

From there, they ran flight tests using a specially designed motion-tracking system. Each electroluminescent actuator served as an active marker that could be tracked using iPhone cameras. The cameras detect each light color, and a computer program they developed tracks the position and attitude of the robots to within 2 millimeters of state-of-the-art infrared motion capture systems.

In the future, they plan to enhance that motion tracking system, so it can track robots in real-time. The team is working to incorporate control signals so the robots could turn their light on and off during flight and communicate more like real fireflies. They are also studying how electroluminescence could even improve some properties of these soft artificial muscles.

For more information, contact Abby Abazorius at 617-253-2709; This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..