Discover the smallest remote-controlled walking robot ever | Scientific and technical news

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Engineers have unveiled the smallest remote-controlled walking robot ever – even smaller than a chip.

The tiny robotic crab can “walk, bend, twist, turn and jump” according to engineers from Northwestern University in the United States. This could mark the start of a new era of micro-scale robotics.

The little machine isn’t powered by miniaturized hardware and electronics, but rather a shape-memory alloy that transforms when heated.

The robot was given the shape of a crab because it amused the students.  Photo: Northwestern University
Image:
The robot was given the shape of a crab because it amused the students. Photo: Northwestern University
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How do they move?

Researchers use a scanned laser beam to rapidly heat the device at different locations on its body to transform it and effectively force the robot to move.

One of the tricks the researchers used was to cover the device with a thin layer of glass that forces this part of the robot’s structure to return to its distorted shape after cooling.

“Because these structures are so small, the cooling rate is very fast. In fact, reducing the size of these robots allows them to operate faster,” explained Professor John Rogers, who led the experimental research.

Part of the success lies in the manufacturing process, which involves gluing flat precursors onto slightly stretched rubber, which forces the crabs to take on a 3D shape like a pop-up book.

However, the work remains exploratory and experimental.

Despite a comparable range of motion and size, the robot crab is much slower than a flea and has “an average speed of half its body length per second”, according to Professor Yonggang Huang, who led the theoretical work.

“It’s very difficult to achieve on such a small scale for ground robots,” Professor Huang added.

The little robot is small enough to stand on the edge of a coin.  Photo: John Rogers/Northwestern University
Image:
The little robot is small enough to stand on the edge of a coin. Photo: John Rogers/Northwestern University

Created on a whim

Northwestern University said: “Although the research is exploratory at this stage, the researchers believe their technology could bring the field closer to achieving microscopic robots capable of performing practical tasks in tightly confined spaces.”

“You can imagine micro-robots as agents for repairing or assembling small structures or machinery in industry or as surgical assistants for clearing clogged arteries, stopping internal bleeding, or removing cancerous tumors – all in minimally invasive procedures,” added Professor Rogers.

The team can make the tiny crabs using a pop-up book-style process.  Photo: Northwestern University
Image:
The team can make the tiny crabs using a pop-up book-style process. Photo: Northwestern University

Millimeter-sized robots resembling caterpillars, crickets and beetles have also been created – but Professor Rogers and Huang’s students settled on peekytoe crabs.

“We can build walking robots with almost any size or 3D shape,” Prof Rogers said.

“But the students felt inspired and amused by the sideways crawling movements of tiny crabs. It was a creative quirk.”

The research was published in the journal Scientific robotics.

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