An artist’s illustration of the tiny robot.
A four-inch wafer of silicon has been turned into an army of one million microscopic, walking robots, thanks to some clever engineering employed by researchers at Cornell University in New York.
In a paper, published Wednesday in the journal Nature, a team of roboticists detail the creation of their invisible army of robots, which are less than 0.1mm in size (about the width of a human hair) and cannot be seen with the naked eye. The robots are rudimentary and are reminiscent of Frogger, the famous 1980s arcade game. But they take advantage of an innovative, new class of actuators, which are the legs of the microrobots, designed by the team.
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Controlling movement in these tiny machines requires the researchers to shine a laser on minuscule light-sensitive circuits on their backs, which propels their four legs forward. They’ve been designed to operate in all manner of environments such as extreme acidity and temperatures. One of their chief purposes, the researchers say, could be to investigate the human body from the inside.
“Controlling a tiny robot is maybe as close as you can come to shrinking yourself down,” Marc Miskin, now an engineer at the University of Pennsylvania and the study’s lead author, said in a statement.
This short video (sped up 8x) shows how the microrobot moves.
“I think machines like these are going to take us into all kinds of amazing worlds that are too small to see.”
But shrinking down robots to this size and enabling them to move through the microscale world is a challenging technical task. It’s much more difficult to move through the world when you’re about the size of a Paramecium.
The team was able to build incredibly small legs, which are connected to two different patches on the back of the robot — one for the front pair of legs, one for the back. Alternating light between the patches propels the microrobot forward.
As you can see in the GIF to the right,