Researchers at Cornell University have fitted electronic “brains” to solar-powered robots between 100 and 250 micrometers in size – smaller than an ant’s head – so they can walk independently without being externally controlled.
While Cornell researchers and others have already developed microscopic machines that can crawl, swim, walk, and fold, there were always “strings” attached; to generate motion, wires were used to deliver electrical current or laser beams had to be focused directly on specific locations on the robots.
“Before, we literally had to manipulate these ‘strings’ in order to get any kind of response from the robot,” said physics professor Itai Cohen. “But now that we have these brains on board, it’s like pulling the strings off the puppet. It’s like when Pinocchio comes to consciousness.”
The innovation paves the way for a new generation of microscopic devices that can track bacteria, detect chemicals, destroy pollutants, perform microsurgery and clean plaque from arteries.
The project brought together researchers from Cohen Laboratories, Alyosha Molnar, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering; and Paul McEuen, professor of physical sciences, all co-lead authors of the paper. The lead author is postdoctoral researcher Michael Reynolds.
The team’s paper, “Microscopic Robots with Onboard Digital Control,” published Sept. 21 in Scientific robotics.
The “brain” of the new robots is a complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor (CMOS) clock circuit that contains a thousand transistors, as well as an array of diodes, resistors and capacitors. The integrated CMOS circuit generates a signal that produces a series of phase-shifted square wave frequencies which, in turn, define the robot’s gait. The robot legs are platinum-based actuators. The circuit and the legs are powered by photovoltaics.
“Eventually, the ability to communicate a command will allow us to give instructions to the robot, and the inner brain will figure out how to carry them out,” Cohen said. “Then we have a conversation with the robot. The robot can tell us something about its surroundings, and then we can react by saying, ‘OK, go over there and try to figure out what’s going on.'”
The new robots are about 10,000 times smaller than large-scale robots with on-board CMOS electronics, and they can walk at speeds in excess of 10 micrometers per second.
The manufacturing process that Reynolds engineered, essentially customizing foundry-built electronics, resulted in a platform that can allow other researchers to equip microscopic robots with their own applications, from chemical detectors to ” Photovoltaic “eyes” that help robots navigate by detecting changes in light. .
“What this lets you imagine are really complex, highly functional microscopic robots that have a high degree of programmability, integrated with not just actuators but also sensors,” Reynolds said. “We’re excited about the applications in medicine – something that could move through tissues and identify good cells and kill bad cells – and in environmental remediation, as if you had a robot that knew how to break down pollutants or detect a dangerous chemical and get rid of it.”
Microscopic robots “walk” thanks to laser technology
Michael F. Reynolds et al, Embedded Numerically Controlled Microscopic Robots, Scientific robotics (2022). DOI: 10.1126/scirobotics.abq2296
Provided by Cornell University
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