September 19, 2022
A team of researchers from Soochow University, together with two colleagues from the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems and another from the Harbin Institute of Technology, have developed a type of soft robot that can be divided into smaller components to traverse small gaps and then reassemble. In their article published in the journal Scientists progressthe group describes how they made their tiny robots and suggests possible uses for them.
As the science of robotics continues to mature, engineers around the world continue to find new ways to make them. In this new effort, the researchers made their own from a ferrofluid (nanoparticles of magnetic iron oxide) that they suspended in a clear oil. The robot is controlled using external magnets.
Using a robot made of a material that is only very loose, the researchers note, allows its shape to be changed on demand. By applying several magnetic fields, they showed that it was possible to steer their robot through a maze, sometimes changing shape to overcome obstacles. They forced him to lie down, for example, to squeeze through a narrow passage. They also broke it into a desired number of smaller parts to pass through porous material. Either way, the robot was then easily reassembled into a single round robot form and continued on its journey. They note that such a robot could be made in a wide variety of sizes.
The robot could eventually be used in medical applications as a means of transporting drugs to hard-to-reach parts of the body, such as lung nodes or parts of the brain. The researchers acknowledge that for practical applications the design would have to overcome many hurdles, the most obvious being the development of a magnetic control system capable of precisely penetrating bones such as the skull. Others, meanwhile, have noted that such a robotic system could prove useful in lab-on-a-chip devices where chemical processes are performed for tasks such as virus detection. The tiny new robots could perhaps be used to transport chemicals needed for reactions.
On-the-fly reconfigurable magnetic slime used as a robot
Xinjian Fan et al, Scale-Reconfigurable Miniature Ferrofluidic Robots for Negotiating Highly Variable Spaces, Scientists progress (2022). DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abq1677
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