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Microrobots: Bigger than they seem

Using insects as templates, researchers are buildings robots that are very small, very mobile—and very useful.

Look down—that tiny creature you're about to step on may be a robot.

We may think of robots as large, hulking, industrial-sized metal monstrosities, up-and-coming medical devices, or cute, humanoid helpers. However, some of the most useful robots being created today can be as small as insects or so diminutive that you can't see them without the help of a microscope. These microrobots are being built to run, fly, swim, and jump into places that are too cramped or too dangerous for humans to venture into.

Most of the six microrobots I describe here are still in early phases of development and testing. But it won't be long before they will be jumping through disaster-struck areas, flying over fires, or crawling through your car's engine.

HAMR: A robotic cockroach with potential

The Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences
The Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University

HAMR with feet

Harvard's HAMR microrobot can walk, swim, and dive. (Credit: Yufeng Chen, Neel Doshi, and Benjamin Goldberg/Harvard University)

While some of us may decry the unfortunate tendency for small ambulatory robots to be compared to insects—such as, say, cockroaches—those insects often can inspire great things. Harvard's Ambulatory Microrobot (HAMR) is a versatile, 1.8-inch-long robotic platform that can run, jump, carry small payloads (about twice its own under-an-ounce weight), and turn on a dime. And HAMR is fast: According to Harvard, it can move about 10.5 body lengths per second.

HAMR has provided researchers with a useful basis from which to try a number of innovations. The HAMR-F, for example, has gotten rid of its leash. It is capable of moving around independently, although it's only slightly heavier and slower (because of the batteries) than its tethered counterpart. More recently, scientists at Harvard's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences added footpads that enable the tiny robot to swim on the surface of water and then sink down and walk underwater. (It still needs a ramp to get back to shore, however.)

The flight of the RoboBees

The Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences
The Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University

If you're uneasy about robots that were built to resemble cockroaches, maybe you'll feel better about robots built to resemble—or at least fly like—bees. Roboticists at Harvard's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering have been developing insectoid robots that not only navigate like bees but behave like them as well. The tiny robots can sense a gust of wind, for example, and adjust their flight plan accordingly, rather than going off course or losing altitude.

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Like HAMR, the RoboBee (with the help, of course, of its roboticists) has improved its game. Its first successful flight was back in 2013. In 2015, it learned to swim, and in 2016, it gained the ability to "perch" on surfaces using static electricity, which allows the RoboBee to save energy for longer flights. Most recently, the 80-milligram robot can take a swim, leap up from the water (getting a boost from a combustible fuel called oxyhydrogen), and then land.

With all its talents, the RoboBee isn't completely autonomous yet. But the little buzzer has already proved so talented, who knows what will come next?

μRobotex builds itself a house

Femto-ST Institute

This incredibly tiny house was built by a robot on the tip of a strand of optical fiber.

This incredibly tiny house was built by a robot on the tip of a strand of optical fiber. (Credit: Femto-ST Institute)

Scientists from the Femto-ST Institute in France wanted to demonstrate the capabilities of their μRobotex platform, a new, extremely small microrobot system. So what better way to do so than to have it build the smallest house in the world?

The robot, working inside a vacuum chamber, used an ion beam to cut and shape a silica membrane that could then be assembled, like a piece of origami paper, into a house standing 0.015 mm high and 0.020 mm across. In comparison, a grain of sand is anywhere from 0.05 mm to 2 mm in diameter. The house stood on the tip of a piece of optical fiber.

The results were published by the American Institute of Physics. According to one of the paper's authors, the research illustrated the ability to construct microsystem assemblies with high accuracy.

Salto jumps to its job

Biomimetic Millisystems Lab, University of California, Berkeley

Salto on platform

Salto is the predecessor of robots that will be able to leap over several obstructions without losing momentum. (Credit: Stephen McNally, University of California, Berkeley)

Salto, short for saltatorial locomotion on terrain obstacles, is a one-legged jumping robot that is 10.2 inches high (fully extended), weighs about 3.5 ounces, and can jump up to 1 meter (3.3 feet) high. But while it's fun to watch Salto leap around, the real importance of Salto's springing skills is that the tiny robot is capable of more than a single jump: It bounces off walls and can perform several jumps in a row, avoiding obstacles with élan.

When in motion, the little robot looks like a something out of an old Warner Brothers cartoon. In fact, according to developer Duncan Haldane, Salto was inspired by the galago (also known as a bush baby), a small mammal that is an expert jumper.

The hope, according to the University of California at Berkeley, where Salto was developed, is that it will lead to robots that can leap over rubble, if not tall buildings, to provide services in emergency situations.

SWARM through your engine

Rolls-Royce Motor Cars
University of Nottingham
Harvard University

Your local auto mechanic may someday be working alongside a swarm of tiny, engine-fixing robots. Rolls-Royce Motor Cars teamed up with scholars from the University of Nottingham and Harvard University to develop independently mobile robots that are about 0.4 inches in diameter. Part of the manufacturer's IntelligentEngine program, the SWARM robots would be put in place by a robotic snake and use tiny cameras to provide video feeds of parts of an engine that are not easily accessible.

This could be a great help to auto mechanics trying to find out what is causing that mysterious engine knock. However, the longer term hope is that SWARM could one day perform visual inspections of aircraft engines, thus avoiding the need to remove the engines from the aircraft.

Would you like to build a SHRIMP?

Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) 

If you're looking for funding so you can build your own tiny robot, you might want to give the U.S. government a call. The Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) wants to develop insect-scaled robots with, according to the synopsis, "untethered mobility, maneuverability, and dexterity." In other words, it wants tiny robots that can move around on their own.

DARPA is planning to sponsor these robots as part of the SHRIMP (Short-Range Independent Microrobotic Platforms) program for the purpose of search and rescue, disaster relief, and hazardous environment inspection. It is also looking for robots that might work as prosthetics or mobile eyes to see in places that humans cannot.

If you have a pet robot that might fit the bill—or, at least, the plans for one—the deadline for the full proposal is Sept. 26.

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.