By Allison Byrum
Dec. 1, 2000
they first began working on the robot bug project, Mike Gogola was
a graduate student and Curtis Austin was an undergraduate. That
was three years ago. Today, Gogola is a research engineer, Austin
is nearly finished with his degree, and the two are still working
with Michael Goldfarb, a professor of mechanical engineering at
Vanderbilt University, on this "out there" research effort.
The goal of
the project, which is funded by the Defense Advanced Research Project
Agency, is to create tiny robotic bugs that can cover significant
distances powered by batteries that they can carry on their backs.
In the future, micro-robots of this sort may be used to carry miniscule
video equipment or other tiny surveillance devices. But the job
that Goldfarb gave the two students was simply to build a robot
bug that worked.
heard about the research from other students. It sounded interesting
so he contacted Goldfarb and asked if he could work on it. "The
robotic bug project fascinated me because it was odd and interesting,"
he says. "It wasn't mainstream; it was on the edge of robotics."
the project was ideal: "I can remember getting in trouble as early
as elementary school for drawing in my "design" notebook. While
the teacher was lecturing, I would draw robots, flying cars, and
other futuristic ideas."
gave him the job, Austin spent most of his undergraduate elective
hours in the lab as well as working full time for two summers.
was already working in Goldfarb's lab when the bug project came
along, was drawn to engineering because of the creativity. "I love
the 'ah-ha' moments when you think of something cool and it works."
Gogola traces his interest in technical subjects to when he was
very young. "I guess sci-fi and the space program got me interested
in engineering. I remember when I was a kid that I really wanted
to work for NASA."
Both men followed
their engineering interests through high school and on to college
at Vanderbilt where they were confronted with the challenge of building
a robotic bug.
tiny robots that they developed do not look much like bugs. They
look more like square plates on legs. Small enough to hold in the
palm of your hand, the micro-robots are remarkably light and seem
very fragile. They don't have wheels or jointed legs as you would
expect. Instead they move by vibration. The plate on top of the
bugs is called an actuator and is made of a material called a piezoelectric
ceramic . When subjected to a fluctuating voltage, the plate vibrates
at a frequency that drives the legs and results in locomotion.
were very enthusiastic, the two students had to wait some time for
their first 'ah-ha' moments.
engineering aspect was challenging enough. But both Gogola and Austin
agree that the construction phase took the most time and energy.
like a super glue commercial," Gogola recalls, laughing. There would
be tiny parts stuck all over their hands adhering to the thin layer
of super glue that quickly became a new skin layer.
The two each
have their share of stories concerning super glue mishaps. Both
had the experience of not only gluing a tiny leg to the body of
the bug, but inadvertently gluing the tweezers that they were using
to hold the leg to the bug's body as well.
"No one can
tell me that super gluing is not an art!" Gogola says.
It was in the
early days that the work was the most frustrating. "We were fatalists
for a while," Gogola admits, "There were little peaks, but there
were huge valleys!" Each bug takes hours to build. Every tiny part
has to be glued together very precisely and in a single moment hours
of effort can be ruined.
"I had finally finished a bug, and I let the wires hang off the
end of my desk. Someone came by and knocked it off. So, I just had
to start over." Starting over became part of the routine. Every
day there was a new bug to be built and an old one to be discarded
and cannibalized. There was constant gluing and redesigning. Each
person's desk was covered with tiny bug parts and splotches of dried
"We glued parts
to our desks, glued parts to ourselves and even glued our fingers
together!" Gogola explained. Like old ladies making baskets each
engineer's head was bent over tiny bug parts trying to get the perfect
design, and then later trying to duplicate it.
broke before you even had a chance to test them," Austin commented,
"that was really frustrating. You didn't even get to see if it worked!"
and Austin had their first real 'ah-ha' moment. Though other bugs
had scooted around tentatively, Gogola built the first bug that
actually moved, and moved well. "The first time I saw one really
move," Austin remembers "I was ecstatic!"
From then on
the frustrations were not as noticeable. While still building and
rebuilding, they had a sense of momentum. Austin remembers that
the more work they did the more excited he became: "You speed up
at the end, you get really pumped because you are making progress
that you can see!"
The final design
was a success. It met the project's goal by demonstrating that it
could to scurry for more than a half mile on the charge from a battery
backpack. As the robot bug project finishes up, Goldfarb's research
group is turning their attention to a new challenge: designing a