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Untethered Microrobots Dance, Form Self-Organized Structures

Microrobots form self-organized structures after years of research by Bruce Donald, a Duke professor of computer science and biochemistry, and a team of researchers. Each spatula-shaped microrobot is just 250 microns long.


Microrobots at work
(The robots are initially arranged along the corners of a rectangle with sides 1 by 0.9 mm. The assembly experiment is divided into three stages. During stage 1, devices 4 and 5 dock together to form the initial stable shape. In stage 2, device 3 docks with the initial stable shape, while during stage 3, device 1 docks with the stable shape, forming the final assembly.)

Here's how the microrobots move and self-assemble:

Propelling themselves across such surfaces in an inchworm-like fashion impelled by a "scratch-drive" motion actuator, the microrobots advance in steps only 10 to 20 billionths of a meter each, but repeated as often as 20,000 times a second.

The microrobots can be so small because they are not encumbered by leash-like tethers attached to an external control system. Built with microchip fabrication techniques, they are each designed to respond differently to the same single "global control signal" as voltages charge and discharge on their working parts.

This global control is akin to ways proteins in cells respond to chemical signals, said Donald, who also uses computer algorithms to study processes in biochemistry and biology.

Here's a video from the 2006 work showing just one microrobot.


Untethered Microrobot video

(Steerable, electrostatic, untethered, MEMS micro-robot, with dimensions of 60 µm by 250 µm by 10 µm. This micro-robot is 1 to 2 orders of magnitude smaller in size than previous micro-robotic systems. The device consists of a curved, cantilevered steering arm, mounted on an untethered scratch drive actuator.)
These devices are disturbingly similar to the embryonic robots from Philip K. Dick's 1967 novel Counter Clock World:

It placed a miniaturized nest of embryonic robots, no larger than pinheads, within the card file, then a tiny find-circuit transmitter behind a subsequent card, then at last a potent detonating device set on a three-day command circuit.
(Read more about Philip K. Dick's embryonic robots)

Star Trek TNG fans might be thinking about the nanites that Wesley Crusher was playing with aboard the Enterprise.


(Star Trek: TNG EVOLUTION nanites)

I've been working on my final project for Advanced Genetics. It’s on nanotechnology. I've been studying the nanites we have in the Sickbay genetic supplies. They're these little tiny robots with gigabytes of mechanical computer memory.

(Star Trek: TNG, 1989)

Via ScienceDaily; thanks to Moira for pointing this story out.

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 6/8/2008)

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