Tiny Robots

October 1, 2008

Microscopic robots crafted to maneuver separately without any obvious guidance are now assembling into self-organized structures after years of continuing research led by a Duke computer scientist.

"It's marvelous to be able to do assembly and control at this fine a resolution with such very, very tiny things," says Bruce Donald, professor of computer science and biochemistry.

Each microrobot is shaped something like a spatula but with dimensions measuring just microns, or millionths of a meter. They are almost 100 times smaller than any previous robotic designs of their kind, Donald says.

Formally known as microelectromechanical system (MEMS) microrobots, the devices are of suitable scale for Lilliputian tasks such as moving around the interiors of laboratories-on-a-chip.

In videos produced by Donald's research team, two microrobots can be seen pirouetting to the music of a Strauss waltz on a dance floor just one millimeter across. In another sequence, the devices pivot in a precise fashion whenever their boomlike steering arms are drawn down to the surface by an electric charge.

Recently, the researchers have succeeded in getting five of the devices to maneuver together using the same control system.

Donald is also working with Duke associate professor of neurobiology Richard Mooney and associate professor of physics Gleb Finkelstein on using the microbots to probe the architecture of animal brains. Eventually, they could be used for a variety of medical, technological, and manufacturing purposes.