With the availability of miniscule motors, actuators, batteries and energy harvesting technologies, the use of miniature robotics, or microbotics, has grown worldwide. Capable of handling micrometer scale objects, micro-robots – also known as micro-bots – are demonstrating capabilities that were unfathomable just a few years ago.
Researchers at the NanoRobotics Laboratory, École Polytechnique de Montréal, Canada are developing medical micro-bots that can be steered through blood vessels using magnets to fight cancer and inject insulin to check for diabetes.
To generate a range of micro-tools or objects that can be programmed again and again for dozens of functions, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are developing the world's smallest chain robot, less than the size of a dime.
They’re designed to link up to others like them and programmed to realize the form for the desired application.
The MIT work was posted on Yahoo! News blog The Lookout by writer Ron Recinto.
As per a description provided by Neil Gershenfeld, head of MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms, where the micro-bots were created, four of these machines assembled with a specialized engine, and covered with rings and fittings, look like a tiny, brass mechanical inchworm – but with more versatility and usefulness.
"It's a step toward the goal of programmable matter," said Gershenfeld. "The goal is not to just to produce a shape. This is something that can change shape."
Programmable matter is something that can change form based on external commands. Because a micro-robot is miniscule, a long chain of micro-bots can theoretically be programmed to take an infinite number of forms.
“A chain of them could form a wrench,” suggested Gershenfeld. “When that tool is no longer needed, the string of robots could be reprogrammed into a coffee cup.”
Fundamentally, per MIT’s presentation, each micro-bot uses a motor that can be used to pivot into any angle. Hence, when interconnected and individually programmed, a chain of a thousand could form a three-dimensional (3D) shape.
To develop movable microbots, wrote Recinto, MIT researchers had to overcome three technical hurdles. The first challenge was to develop programs that could turn codes into shapes. That means transforming binary 1s and 0s into geometric folds.
Second, they had to develop a small, efficient motor. And third, the MIT team had to design a one-dimensional robot that could be made in a continuous strip and folded into arbitrary 3D shapes.
Commenting on MIT’s micro-bot work, Kenn Oldham, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Michigan, said the MIT team's work "looks interesting."
"One of the major challenges in miniature robotics is power handling, as power and energy availability is very limited," noted Oldham.
Meanwhile, engineers at Harvard University have pioneered a method of mass-producing bee-sized flying micro-bots. The technique, which exploits existing machinery for making printed circuit boards, can theoretically be applied to a multitude of electromechanical machines, allowing scores of robots to be manufactured simultaneously on a single sheet.
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Edited by Braden Becker