(ORDO NEWS) — Is your tiny robot really that small if it’s wider than a coin? A team of scientists have created the world’s smallest remote-controlled walking robot, measuring just half a millimeter (less than a fiftieth of an inch) wide.
Extremely tiny robots have a range of potential uses, from assisting in surgical procedures to repairing machinery in places where a wrench can’t fit. The smaller they become, the more scenarios they can be used.
Although this bot is not yet ready to go out into the world and do repairs, it is really impressive.
It looks and moves like a miniature peekytoe crab, whose shape the researchers say was chosen on a “creative whim”. The methods they have developed can be used to create tiny robots of almost any shape needed.
“Our technology allows for a variety of controlled movements and can walk at an average speed of half a body length per second,” says mechanical engineer Yonggan Huang of Northwestern University in Illinois.
“This is very difficult to achieve on such a small scale for ground-based robots.”
The technology behind the robot was originally developed eight years ago and is no different from a pop-up book: parts of the robot are attached to a stretchable rubber backing, and when the material relaxes, the device pops up to take its shape.
By carefully calibrating the details of the base, the shape of the robot can be precisely controlled. A similar approach is used with the moving parts of the robot, which are made of a shape memory alloy. These materials change their shape depending on whether they are heated or not.
The lasers, acting as a remote control, are used to heat certain parts of the robot – when those parts take on a different shape, they move the crab forward. There is no need for a power source or engine, and the thin layer of glass ensures that the components return to their original shape after cooling.
“Because these structures are so small, the cooling rate is very high,” says materials scientist John Rogers of Northwestern University. “In fact, downsizing these robots allows them to work faster.”
By aiming lasers at different parts of the robo-crab, researchers can set the direction of movement. By adjusting the frequency of laser scanning, you can also change the speed of the robot.
It’s the next step in a trend in which robots are getting smaller and smaller over time, whether it’s to make them more resilient, to target drugs to treat diseases, or to create large modular structures from smaller parts.
The researchers say their new process has great potential: for example, they can make robots turn and jump using the same methods. As long as the robot is within line of sight of the laser, it can be controlled remotely.
“Robotics is an exciting area of research, and the development of microscale robots is an interesting topic for academic research,” says Rogers.
“You can imagine microrobots as agents for repairing or assembling small structures or machines in industry, or as surgical assistants to clear clogged arteries, stop internal bleeding, or remove cancerous tumors – all within minimally invasive procedures.”
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