Firefly robots ‘communicate’ in flight using colored lights

(ORDO NEWS) — Electroluminescent particles in the artificial muscles of microscopic drones glow in different colors, allowing you to track their movements and interact with them right in the air.

Firefly beetles have special organs in which photochemical reactions can take place, causing their abdomens to 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 interaction.

Developed by engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), miniature machines can not only fly, but also “communicate” through electroluminescence. This is described in the message of the press service of MIT.

The microscopic flying vehicles that MIT Professor Kevin Chen’s team is working on weigh little more than a paper clip and are not capable of carrying a more or less decent array of sensors and communication tools on board.

Therefore, they are usually controlled by a central computer, which monitors the position of each individual microdrone using an IR video camera.

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

The microdrones themselves were introduced at the end of 2021. Their main feature was the use of unusual artificial muscles that allow the devices to fly.

To do this, scientists used structures consisting of ultra-thin layers of elastomer, laid with conductive carbon nanotubes and rolled into cylinders. When current is applied to the nanotubes, the elastic elastomer is compressed, forcing the cylinder to contract and setting the wings of the device in motion.

To make them glow at the same time, the microdrones had to be supplemented with elements with electroluminescent properties – tiny “inserts” that glow when a weak voltage is applied to transparent electrodes.

Electroluminescent zinc sulfate particles were incorporated into the elastomer of artificial muscles. According to the developers, such a supplement increased the power consumption of the vehicles by only 3.2 percent, and the mass – by only 2.4 percent, without reducing their flight performance at all.

Chen and his team put their design to the test in the lab, tracking the craft in flight using three iPhone cameras. Data from them was fed into a computer that was able to determine the position of each drone in space with an accuracy of two millimeters.

At the same time, a well-thought-out selection of luminescent particles makes it possible to achieve different colors, and elements in different muscles of the same drone can glow in their own way.

In the future, this will allow them to report their status and position, organizing control and communication with swarms of such miniature devices.

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