Conducting A Microbot Orchestra

What’s that new music to scientists’ ears? Tech that makes tiny bots less sticky.



Scientists hold great hopes for microbots–tiny robots that, when working in concert, could have a wide range of medical and commercial applications. But a major research hurdle remains if we’re ever going to be able to conduct an orchestra of microbots. We need to figure out how to control them.

A major problem is adhesion–the tendency for little bots to stick together, as Jason Gorman, a robotics researcher at the National Institute of Standards and Technology told Technology Review. Researchers have been trying to figure out ways to overcome microbot stickiness, mostly by experimenting with magnetic fields. Using this method, researchers have been able to get the microbots to do some impressive work–navigating blood vessels, for instance, of moving around on the surface of a dime. But still, the techniques weren’t good enough, demanding intricate equipment.

Now a group of researchers have taken a new approach and have built a more dynamic microbot that will move in response to electrostatic charges, according to the Review. The trick has been to engineer robots that can react differently, so that “each one responds to the same amount of voltage with a different action.” The key is to equip each robot with little arms that affect the way the robot moves on a surface. The researchers can control the way each bot’s micro-arm snaps up and down–up to 600 times in just one second–and thereby affect the motion of each individual bot. Add in a computer algorithm to control the voltage, and you have your orchestra of microbots ready to perform to the conductor’s will.

We don’t appear to be near commercial applications yet, but a significant research hurdle has been jumped. Now researchers are trying to make microbot swarms that perform well in a liquid environment–since one of the hopes for the swarms is that they’ll be able to go in the body and help build healthy biological tissue.

Related: “Cancer-Fighting Nanoparticles Could Herald Real-Life Medical Innerspace

[Image: Flickr user usarmyband]


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About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal.