Smallest, lightest, fastest micro-robots ever devised, experts claim

Smallest, lightest, fastest micro-robots ever devised, experts claim

Smallest, lightest, fastest micro-robots ever devised, experts claim

Researchers at Washington State University (WSU) claim that they have successfully engineered micro-robots that are not only the smallest and lightest but also the fastest among fully functional micro-robots ever developed.



The mini-bug weighs eight milligrams, and the water strider weighs 55 milligrams. Both can move at a speed of approximately six millimeters per second. For reference, an average ant weighs around five milligrams and can achieve a movement speed of nearly one meter per second. 

The researchers envision various potential applications for their miniature robots, such as insect-like robots, mini-bugs, and water striders. These applications span various domains, including artificial pollination, search and rescue operations, environmental monitoring, micro-fabrication, and robotic-assisted surgery.

The details of the team’s research were published in the journal IEEE Xplore.

Compact actuators

The tiny robots owe their mobility to minuscule actuators propelling their movements. Researchers employed an innovative fabrication method to shrink the actuator’s size to less than a milligram, establishing a new record for the smallest actuator ever created.

“The actuators are the smallest and fastest ever developed for micro-robotics,” said Néstor O. Pérez-Arancibia, Flaherty Associate Professor in Engineering at WSU’s School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering who led the project, in a statement.

The actuator incorporates a material known as a shape memory alloy (SMA), which can alter its shape when subjected to heat. Termed ‘shape memory’ due to its capacity to remember and revert to its initial form, these alloys differ from conventional motors.

They lack moving parts or spinning components typically associated with robot movement. “The development of the very lightweight actuator opens up new realms in micro-robotics,” said Trygstad.

Through this, the team could develop a compact seven mm long actuator with a volume of 0.45 mm^3, weighing just 0.96 mg. This innovative actuator boasts up to 40 Hz operational frequencies and can lift an impressive 155 times its weight.

To showcase its potential, the team created two functional microrobots: the 8-mg MiniBug crawler, measuring 8.5 mm in length, achieving speeds of up to 0.76 BL/s (body lengths per second), and holding the title of the lightest fully functional crawling microrobot in its class.

Additionally, the 56-mg WaterStrider, inspired by nature, can travel at speeds of up to 0.28 BL/s, execute turning maneuvers at angular rates around 0.144 rad/s, and stands as the lightest controllable SMA-driven water-surface-tension crawler to date.

Energy efficient

Traditional SMAs used for large-scale robotic movement are limited due to their relatively slow response. However, in the case of the WSU robots, the actuators consist of two minuscule shape memory alloy wires, each measuring 1/1000 of an inch in diameter. 

These wires can be easily heated and cooled with a small amount of current, enabling the robots to swiftly flap their fins or move their feet at a remarkable rate of up to 40 times per second.

Preliminary tests demonstrated the actuator’s ability to lift more than 150 times its weight. Compared to alternative robotic motion technologies, SMA technology stands out by requiring only a minimal amount of electricity or heat to facilitate movement.

In contrast to the WSU water strider robot’s flat flapping motion for propulsion, the natural water strider employs a more efficient rowing motion with its legs, contributing to its superior speed. 

Researchers now aim to replicate a different insect’s mechanism, striving to create a water strider-type robot capable of both surface and sub-surface movement.

Additionally, efforts are underway to enable these robots to achieve full autonomy by utilizing miniature batteries or catalytic combustion, freeing them from reliance on external power sources.

Source: Interesting Engineering

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Smallest, lightest, fastest micro-robots ever devised, experts claim

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