AsianScientist (Jul. 6, 2021) – Here’s one big advance from the world of tiny technology: scientists from Singapore have developed millimeter-sized robots with movements controlled by magnetic fields. These robots, which could potentially be used in biomedicine and manufacturing, are described in Advanced Materials.
The word ‘robot’ may conjure images of superpowered suits à la Iron Man or humongous humanoid mecha as in Pacific Rim, but researchers are zooming instead on their pint-sized counterparts. Within our bodies, these tiny robots could precisely deliver drugs to cells, while in factories, they can assemble, test and repair other miniature objects like microchips.
Though other small-scale robots have been created before, researchers have yet to discover a way to finetune the motion of these miniature machines. At least, until now.
By embedding magnetic microparticles into biocompatible polymers, a team from Nanyang Technology University, Singapore (NTU) has fabricated miniature robots whose movements can be controlled remotely by an operator using a computer program that adjusts the strength and direction of the magnetic fields generated by electromagnetic coils.
Measuring about the size of a grain of rice, the robots represent a significant upgrade from existing miniature robots thanks to their improved ability to move and rotate across three dimensions. Compared to previous versions created by the same team—which could only move along two dimensions—the new robots could also rotate 43 times faster.
In the laboratory, the researchers demonstrated the dexterity and speed of their tiny machines. For instance, their jellyfish-inspired robot made of soft materials managed to speedily swim through tight openings—suggesting that similar robots may be used to reach confined and enclosed spaces currently inaccessible to existing machines.
Someday, the robots may even be used in new surgical procedures for vital body parts often considered too delicate or too difficult to operate on, such as the brain. However, more testing is needed before the robots can be safely deployed for medical applications.
Meanwhile, their gripper robot managed to assemble a 3D structure in less than five minutes, about 20 times faster than other existing miniature robots. This proof-of-concept demonstration shows that one day, such robots could be used in ‘micro-factories’ that build micro-scale devices. Moving forward, the NTU team is now looking to further shrink their robots to the scale of a few hundred micrometers and ultimately make the robots’ motion fully autonomous.
“By fully understanding the physics of these miniature robots, we are now able to accurately control their motions,” explained lead author NTU Assistant Professor Lum Guo Zhan. “Our findings are therefore pivotal, and they represent a significant advancement for small-scale robotic technologies.”
The article can be found at: Xu et al. (2021) Small-Scale Magnetic Actuators with Optimal Six Degrees-of-Freedom.
Source: Nanyang Technological University.
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