The Expanding World of Shrinking Robots

By: | June 8th, 2015

The Microrobotics Lab at Harvard University is working on microbots that might be able to help, if not totally reshape, fields including agriculture, medicine and police work. These innovative microbots are being developed with the overall goal of making tasks more efficient and less expensive.

RoboBees, a great example of this new frontier, are colonies of autonomous flying microbots which could one day perform search-and-rescue expeditions, scout hazardous environments, gather scientific field data, and even help pollinate actual crops.

The medical field is seeing advancements ranging from cameras the size of pill capsules that travel the intestines to tiny, soft robotic materials that could help doctors perform biopsies on living cells inside the body. Who would have ever thought that a microbot could be inserted into the body to actually perform medical work?

Microgrippers (currently in development at The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore) come from the soft robotics area of research, and they will potentially perform minimally invasive biopsies and even precisely deliver drugs to specific locations in the body. The microgrippers are shaped like sea stars, which have six arms that can wrap around cells, grip, and then actually remove them from surrounding tissue.

Additionally, there is new research that has pioneered a procedure for using microbots to treat tumors deep inside the neck or head that were previously inoperable. Another research project is testing the ability for different types and sizes of microbots that could swim unobtrusively through the human body in a kind of reconnaissance mission and be capable of detecting a variety of diseases. This kind of noninvasive testing could radically reduce the amount of time it takes to detect and subsequently begin treating diseases.

If microbots are good, then nanobots are even better. In a world where bigger is often associated with better, it is the opposite when looking to put little robots into the human body. Micro and nano robots will be able to reach specific targeted areas, provide treatments and therapies, measure the effects and, when complete, be removed or degrade with no adverse effects. In a perfect world, all these tasks would be automated, but they could also be performed under direct supervision and control of an external user.

While different approaches have been explored for the wireless actuation of micro and nano robots, magnetic fields have been the most widely used strategy for propulsion because they do not require special environmental properties such as conductivity or transparency. Magnetic fields allow for the precise manipulation of magnetic objects toward specific locations, and are biocompatible even at relatively high field strengths (MRI).

When you begin to think about the costs and time that it traditionally takes for surgery, farming, or surveillance it is easy to understand why these developments could be very exciting. What other possibilities do you see in the future of micro and nano robotics?

Article originally posted on Mouser Electronics.

Justin is a contributing author to and Mouser Electronics’ Bench Talk for Design Engineers blog who loves to read and write about the advancements of technology and robotics. When not at work, you can find him conquering Risk and Catan or on an adventure with his wife and kids. Last Father’s Day he received a #1 dad shirt, so now that’s official.

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