Imagine robots no bigger than your finger tip scrambling through the rubble of a disaster site to search for victims or to assess damage. That's the vision of engineer Sarah Bergbreiter and her research team at the University of Maryland.
With support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the team is building micro-robots, using insects as inspiration—starting with the legs. The objective of this project is to create legs that will ultimately allow a millimeter-scale robot to traverse rough terrain at high speeds. Many insects jump to clear obstacles, so the research team is working to build that capability into some of the micro-robots as well.
The researchers have to test out different materials and designs on bigger robots before scaling them down to size. In fact, these robots are so small that the research team uses microscopes to build them. To address the challenge of determining how these tiny 'bots' are going to move around, the researchers' preliminary are testing process uses magnets instead of motors.
Bergbreiter envisions the micro-robots as mobile sensor platforms that can move through real-world environments at insect-like speeds for a variety of purposes, such as searching through small cracks in rubble after natural disasters, providing low-cost sensor deployment and engaging in stealthy surveillance.
"This is a very worthwhile effort and is just the beginning of what we hope will be achieved in the future when these micro-robots are equipped with video sensors and wireless communications," says George Haddad, a program director in the Division of Electrical, Communications and Cyber Systems within NSF's Directorate for Engineering.
The research in this episode was supported by NSF award #1055675, CAREER: Microrobot Legs for Fast Locomotion Over Rough Terrain.
Explore further: Johns Hopkins researchers interact with industrial robots (w/ video)