New Microscopic Robot's Tiny Step Is a Huge Leap

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Pister notes that microrobots at this scale currently depend on much larger support apparatus, like the specially designed floor.

In the future, he'd like to see them function on their own—and also pack a more technologically sophisticated punch.

"I don't know that any real robotics person would consider [a robot] something without built-in electronics or intelligence."

Tiny Robots, Enormous Possibilities

Though in their infancy, such tiny robots could someday be enormously useful.

Chris Levey, director of the microengineering lab at Dartmouth's Thayer School of Engineering, likens the possibilities to those of computer chips. As chips become ever more powerful, their many transistors working together can perform tasks far more complex than chips with only a few transistors.

"Part of the goal is that if we could make robots very small, in the future we can imagine many such robots interacting with each other and also interacting with very small things," he explained.

"Imagine this as a model of planetary exploration," McGray said. "You don't drop one Mars Rover, you drop a handful of dust which contains a million microscopic Mars Rovers that could explore the surface in a massively parallel way."

More earthbound applications may be closer to fruition.

One possibility is a "microfactory" in which the assembly floor serves as the robots' special power-supplying surface. Such a system could sprinkle minute parts onto the floor, where a team of microrobots assembles them into other tiny machines.

The robots could be of similar use in a microchemistry lab, where they might help regulate chemical processes by opening and closing valves.

The tiny machines could also be useful for information security, providing mechanical verifications inside computer systems. Other possibilities include work in hazardous environments or even within human cells.

"It's not impossible to think about them someday manipulating cells," Levey said.

Shrinking robots is a growing field of research. For that reason much of Dartmouth's microrobots' design will be in the public domain.

Far from guarding proprietary secrets, McGray hopes that others will be intrigued enough take the concept to another level.

"Will other people continue to explore the possibilities [this robot] raises?" he said. "That's how you get to useful applications. It's an incremental process."

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