About the size of a locust and weighing only seven grams, this tiny robot can jump 27 times its own size. ((Alain Herzog, EPFL))

Taking their cue from leaping insects like the grasshopper and flea, Swiss roboticists have built a tiny robot with spring-powered legs, capable of jumping 27 times its own size.

Researchers at Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) said a swarm of the tiny robots could be used to survey rough, inaccessible terrain, and aid in search-and-rescue operations.

"This biomimetic form of jumping is unique because it allows micro-robots to travel over many types of rough terrain where no other walking or wheeled robot could go," said EPFL Prof. Dario Floreano in a statement. "These tiny jumping robots could be fitted with solar cells to recharge between jumps and deployed in swarms for extended exploration of remote areas on Earth or on other planets."

The tiny robot — which is only five centimetres tall and weighs just seven grams —was unveiled on Wednesday at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Pasadena, Calif.

It uses a vibration unit from a pager to drive a system of gears that wind two torsion springs that quickly release the jumping energy.

How high or far the robot jumps depends on the angle of the adjustable jumping legs and the takeoff angle, but the researchers said it was capable of jumping 1.4 metres, or 10 times farther for its size and weight than any existing jumping robot.

The tiny battery allows the robot to make up to 320 jumps at a rate of one jump every three seconds.

The researchers said the manner in which grasshoopers, fleas and frogs store elastic energy provided the inspiration for the robot design.