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Students labor in robotic bug laboratory

By Allison Byrum / Intern
Dec. 1, 2000

When 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.

Curtis Austin 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."

For Austin, 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."

After Goldfarb gave him the job, Austin spent most of his undergraduate elective hours in the lab as well as working full time for two summers.

Gogola, who 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.

Actually, the 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.

Although both were very enthusiastic, the two students had to wait some time for their first 'ah-ha' moments.

The project's engineering aspect was challenging enough. But both Gogola and Austin agree that the construction phase took the most time and energy.

"We looked 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.

Austin recalls, "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 super glue.

"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.

"When they 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!"

Finally Gogola 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 jet-powered exoskeleton.

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Robotic bugs that go the distance