Scientists create the smallest-ever remote-controlled walking robot

Shaped in the form of a crab, it is smaller than a flea and can walk, bend, twist, turn and jump

By Faisal Khan | 20 June 2022

(Image Credit: North Western University)

Back in 2020, I covered a few use cases of how nanotechnology is providing a path to the future where patients will be delivered localized medication at the cellular level. These futuristic nanobots are hypothesized solutions of the future, which can deliver targeted medication within a human body. I talked about one such creation in the same year where researchers created World’s smallest microelectronic robot — one propelled by ‘jet engines’.

Later in 2021, scientists developed ‘MANiAC’ — Microbots designed to deliver location-specific drugs. All of these inventions are expected to become an advanced arsenal of drug delivery technologies at doctors’ disposal in the future. Taking this groundbreaking research forward, Engineers at Northwestern University have now developed the smallest-ever remote-controlled walking robot.

The robotic crab is smaller than a flea and is capable of carrying out multiple activities like walking, bending, twisting, turning, and jumping. This remote-controlled crab measures just a half-millimeter wide or roughly 0.02-inches across. However, this is not the only one — the team of researchers also developed millimeter-sized robots resembling inchworms, crickets, and beetles.

“You might imagine micro-robots as agents to repair or assemble small structures or machines in industry or as surgical assistants to clear clogged arteries, to stop internal bleeding or to eliminate cancerous tumors — all in minimally invasive procedures.”

~ John A. Rogers, Experimental Lead

Just like a tick that gets onto your body during a hike in the woods, this RC robot can move about without being detected, since it is incredibly small and lightweight. Its powering mechanism is unlike the traditional complex techniques used. The crab is created from a shape-memory alloy that is deformed by a thin coating of glass applied during the manufacturing process but returns to its original starting shape when heat is applied.

According to the study, a scanned laser beam was employed to rapidly heat the robot at different targeted locations across its body. A thin coating of glass elastically returns that corresponding part of the structure to its deformed shape upon cooling. As the robot changes from a deformed shape to the remembered one and back again, it creates locomotion.

Apart from the remote control of the robot, the laser beam also determines the robot’s walking direction. To create the tiny robot, researchers utilized a pop-up assembly method they introduced eight years ago. This manufacturing technique enables them to create a multitude of robots — of almost any size or even 3D shape. Researchers are excited at the prospect of its use case in the healthcare industry specifically.

Complete Research was published in the Journal of Science Robotics.

Reprinted with permission from the author.

Faisal Khan is a prolific Canada-based tech blogger and influencer. He is the founder and editor of the Technicity publication which focuses on technical, scientific and financial knowledge sharing. Follow him on Twitter @fklivestolearn.

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