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Fireflies-robots “communicate” in flight by means of colored lights

Electroluminescent particles in the artificial muscles of microscopic drones glow in different colors, allowing you to track their movements and interact with them directly in the air.

Lightning bugs carry special organs in which photochemical reactions can take place, making their abdomens glow quite brightly in the dark. This glow performs communication functions: with its help, insects look for mating partners, scare away predators and so on. Now robots are also capable of such communication.

Developed by engineers of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) miniature machines can not only fly but also “communicate” by means of electroluminescence. This is told in a press release from MIT. The paper scientists published in the journal IEEE Robotics and Automation Letters.

Microscopic flying machines, which are working on a team of Professor at MIT Kevin Chen (Kevin Chen), weighs little more than a paper clip and can not carry on board a more or less decent set of sensors and communication tools. Therefore, they are usually controlled by a central computer, which tracks the position of each individual microrot using an infrared video camera.

However, in real “field” conditions such a system is too unreliable, if only because it is extremely difficult to distinguish each unit in the video stream. That is why scientists decided to simplify it, and now for such a task a pair of the most common cameras, which are available in any modern smartphone, is enough.

Micro drones themselves were presented at the end of 2021. Their main feature was the use of unusual artificial muscles, which allow the devices to fly. For this purpose, scientists used structures consisting of ultra-thin layers of elastomer lined with conductive carbon nanotubes and coiled into cylinders. When current is applied to the nanotubes, the elastic elastomer is compressed, causing the cylinder to contract and driving the wings of the apparatus.

To make them glow, the microrodrons had to be supplemented with elements with electroluminescent properties – tiny “inserts” that glow when a weak voltage is applied to the transparent electrodes. The electroluminescent zinc sulfate particles were introduced into the elastomer of the artificial muscles. According to the developers, this addition increased the power consumption of vehicles by only 3.2 percent and the weight by only 2.4 percent, without reducing their flight performance at all.

Chen and his team tested their design in the lab, tracking the vehicles in flight with three iPhone cameras. The data from them was fed into a computer, which was able to determine the position of each drone in space to within two millimeters. The clever selection of fluorescent particles allows for different colors, and the elements in different muscles of the same drone can glow differently. In the future, this will allow them to report their status and position, organizing control and communication with swarms of such miniature vehicles.

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