Researchers Hope to Mass-Produce Tiny Robots

Aug 28, 2009 By Lisa Zyga feature
An illustration of the I-SWARM robot: (1) solar cell, (2) IR-communication module, (3) an ASIC, (4) capacitors, (5) locomotion module. Image credit: Edqvist, et al.

(PhysOrg.com) -- Tiny robots the size of a flea could one day be mass-produced, churned out in swarms and programmed for a variety of applications, such as surveillance, micromanufacturing, medicine, cleaning, and more. In an effort to reach this goal, a recent study has demonstrated the initial tests for fabricating microrobots on a large scale.

The researchers, from institutes in Sweden, Spain, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland, explain that their building approach marks a new paradigm of robot development in microrobotics. The technique involves integrating an entire robot - with communication, locomotion, , and electronics - in different modules on a single circuit board. In the past, the single-chip robot concept has presented significant limitations in design and manufacturing. However, instead of using solder to mount electrical components on a printed circuit board as in the conventional method, the researchers use conductive adhesive to attach the components to a double-sided flexible printed circuit board using surface mount technology. The circuit board is then folded to create a three-dimensional robot.

The resulting robots are very small, with their length, width, and height each measuring less than 4 mm. The robots are powered by a solar cell on top, and move by three vibrating legs. A fourth vibrating leg is used as a touch sensor. As the researchers explain, a single microrobot by itself is a physically simple individual. But many robots communicating with each other using infrared sensors and interacting with their environment can form a group that is capable of establishing swarm intelligence to generate more complex behavior. The framework for this project, called I-SWARM (intelligent small-world autonomous robots for micro-manipulation) is inspired by the behavior of biological insects.

Images of the robots showing their size proportional to various objects. Image credit: Edqvist, et al.

“I look upon them more like a manufacturing way for future robots,” Erik Edqvist of Uppsala University in Sweden told PhysOrg.com. “There are cool experiments going on with flying insects, swimming robots and so on. But it is time for the miniaturized robots to leave the research laboratories and find useful applications. That is where this work fits in. It is an attempt (with a somewhat small budget) to try to build robots in a mass-fabricated way.”

As this was the first test of this fabrication technique, the researchers noted that they encountered some fabrication problems. The single largest problem was to connect the naked integrated circuit to the flexible printed circuit board by the conductive adhesive. Also, some solar cells did not stick due to weak adhesion. At this stage in the production process, the robots were folded manually, but the researchers hope to design a tool to enable a faster and more accurate alignment when folding. Many of these complications could likely be corrected, with the important result being that the microrobots can be assembled using a surface mounting machine, whereas prior robots have usually been manually assembled with a soldering iron.

In the future, the researchers hope to move from building academic prototypes to manufacturing the robot on a commercial basis, which is necessary for overcoming some of the technical issues. By mass-producing swarms of robots, the loss of some robotic units will be negligible in terms of cost, functionality, and time, yet still achieve a high level of performance. Currently, the researchers hope to find funding to reach these goals.

“Right now the robots need a new ASIC [application-specific integrated circuit] and some other redesigns to be able to work properly,” Edqvist said.

More information: Erik Edqvist, et al. “Evaluation of building technology for mass producible millimeter-sized robots using flexible printed circuit boards.” J. Micromech. Microeng. 19 (2009) 075011 (11pp).

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User comments : 31

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Mr_Frontier
5 / 5 (4) Aug 28, 2009
World swarm domination never looked so cute
Royale
5 / 5 (2) Aug 28, 2009
Yea, seriously. Read Michael Crichton's "Prey". These are not what you picture. Haha.
Shaffer
5 / 5 (2) Aug 28, 2009
churned out in swarms and programmed for a variety of applications, such as surveillance, micromanufacturing, medicine, cleaning, and

DEATH!
Shootist
1 / 5 (2) Aug 28, 2009
"Tiny robots the size of a flea could one day be mass-produced, churned out in swarms and programmed for a variety of applications . . ."

Sounds like Grey Ooze to me.
antialias
not rated yet Aug 28, 2009
No. Grey Ooze would need to be self replicating/self assembling - and that from materials in the environment. These robots do none of that. They still have to be manufactured at a plant of some sort.

Even if you program them to cooperatively build more of their brethren they still need the parts to be given to them (solar cells don't exactly grow on trees)
Soylent
5 / 5 (1) Aug 28, 2009
Chances are if grey ooze could exist nature would have already invented it already. Cellular nanomachinery is absolutely amazing, yet comes nowhere close to grey ooze.
Shootist
3.5 / 5 (2) Aug 28, 2009
No. Grey Ooze would need to be self replicating/self assembling - and that from materials in the environment. These robots do none of that. They still have to be manufactured at a plant of some sort.



Even if you program them to cooperatively build more of their brethren they still need the parts to be given to them (solar cells don't exactly grow on trees)


The first generation "does none of that". Who's to say what the 10,000th generation would do?
NeilFarbstein
3 / 5 (2) Aug 28, 2009
they can make tiny robotic fleas to drive your dog crazy.
Poul Anderson wrote a science fiction novel where astronauts reanimated from suspended animation find an earth that has changed dramatically. All protoplasmic creatures were replaced by robotic silicon lifeforms in an ecology as broad as living things on earth now.
Birthmark
not rated yet Aug 28, 2009
This is so cool!
Mercury_01
not rated yet Aug 28, 2009
what if theres a slight breeze? they should cover their feet in that new gecko tape.
GaryB
not rated yet Aug 28, 2009
Hmmm, but these don't as yet do anything, they need a "redesign". So this is all kind of a hype. Then when they are redesigned, the swarm will somehow do something useful with their touch pokers. This is a long way from reality. I'll worry about swarms in a decade or 2.
Truth
2 / 5 (2) Aug 28, 2009
Swarms of micro-bots approaching you in your bed, invisible meta material agents watching you as you work, nano-size security cams recording your every move....ahh, ain't technology grand?
Bob_B
not rated yet Aug 28, 2009
An interesting read was "The Age of Spiritual Machines" by Ray Kurzweil has a section on "nano-bots" and what they may be capable of. He talks about possible nano-bot wars and the world after (if they were to occur) the nano-bot wars.

I imagine there is no wind in the Pentagon, to answer the wind question from above
docknowledge
1 / 5 (2) Aug 28, 2009
Hmmm, but these don't as yet do anything, they need a "redesign". So this is all kind of a hype. Then when they are redesigned, the swarm will somehow do something useful with their touch pokers. This is a long way from reality. I'll worry about swarms in a decade or 2.


Nah. Worry now. It saves time, as the Red Queen said in "Alice in Wonderland".

If we were to stop, or at least regulate this now, we wouldn't have to face the clear and present danger 20 years hence.
zevkirsh
not rated yet Aug 29, 2009
mass producing these things looks awesome. seems like if you put a few hundred thousand in a scattering device inside of a plane, you'd be able to cover a whole city in this stuff. it should be good for something especially if you can add sensorsor some sort.
vika_Tae
not rated yet Aug 29, 2009
It sounds like the first tentative steps towards nanofabricators. I was asked to give my thoughts the other day, and stated that I firmly did not believe they would be feasible before 2040. Ah well.
kasen
not rated yet Aug 29, 2009
It's 6 orders of magnitude too large to be considered even close to nanotech. It's not even micro. It's visible to the naked eye, for crying out loud. If they'd decide to take over the planet, we already have the perfect weapons to deal with them. Swatters.

Unless they could stick to surfaces like an insect, which is probably a bit hard with vibrating legs, I don't really see a great deal of applications for this particular design. The choice of power supply isn't very flexible either. Why not some form of short distance wireless power transfer? It should be feasible on such a small scale.

The manufacturing process is quite smart, though, and if I understood it right, these little fellas could be fabricated en masse from a desktop sized printer. If they come up with a working design capable of manufacturing tasks, that might have some serious economical implications. Just print more printers...
Damon_Hastings
2.5 / 5 (2) Aug 29, 2009
Chances are if grey ooze could exist nature would have already invented it already. Cellular nanomachinery is absolutely amazing, yet comes nowhere close to grey ooze.

Nature's not done inventing yet. If you accept that intelligence evolves naturally, then Nature is now "inventing" through us -- just as it would on any other planet where intelligent life evolved. Is gray ooze a likely consequence of the natural evolution of intelligence? We won't know that until we see many other planets which evolved intelligent life (or until we make the ooze ourselves!) But the fact that it has not existed yet doesn't mean it can't -- Nature has only just very recently created us, and, transitively, it has just created the potential for a near infinite array of radically novel types of creatures undreamt of by the Earth until now. The only question is how responsible we're capable of being with this power.
kasen
not rated yet Aug 29, 2009
Is gray ooze a likely consequence of the natural evolution of intelligence?


Creating something that ends up devouring your species and planet doesn't sound very intelligent. If we ever get around to developing that level of technology, I hope we'll at least have a the processing power to simulate the effects of mass distribution of self-assembling nanotech, if not a backup planet or two. At any rate, it shouldn't end up in a disaster, unless we're very, very stupid or lazy.

Then again, there's the idea of transcendence. Something along the lines of a grey singularity. One with the ooze.
vika_Tae
5 / 5 (2) Aug 29, 2009
"unless we're very, very stupid or lazy"

Sounds like the human race to me.
TravisD
not rated yet Aug 30, 2009
There are some cool videos, including ones that show the robots moving around, over on Hizook.com -- http://www.hizook...egration
antialias
not rated yet Aug 30, 2009
There are easy ways of preventing gray ooze (self assembling and replicating nanobots) from running out of control

a) Do not make the bots energy-autonomous (make them dependent on energy transmitted via a specific radio frequency). Turn off the transmitter and the ooze stops. This would also confine them to the area where you want them to do their work.
b) Make them dependent on a meterial not found in nature (one that they cannot synthesize). Once the initially given supply runs out the ooze stops growing.
Damon_Hastings
5 / 5 (1) Aug 30, 2009
N_O_M, have I done something to offend you? You seem to be stalking me and leaving 1's on all my posts.
lengould100
not rated yet Sep 01, 2009
Someone should invent a nano-robot who's primay purpose is to collect and "eat" (or deliver to a central collection location) all that noxious algae which is fouling up the beaches in N France.
vika_Tae
not rated yet Sep 01, 2009
It's 6 orders of magnitude too large to be considered even close to nanotech. It's not even micro. It's visible to the naked eye, for crying out loud.


I am aware of this, the point is, I was working with a 30 year timespan. If we are now capable of this level of miniaturization, then I may have to revise my professional opinion on the point we will be capable of in three decades.

I did not believe we had achieved this level of swarm AI for this size of robot, now, if that makes sense. I apologize for the confusion.
Edqvist
not rated yet Sep 02, 2009
Replay to Kasen:

Hi
The multilayered used for the legs do have electrodes that are about 15 nm thick (evaporated Al). The active piezopolymer (PVDF-TrFE) are about 2.5 µm thick. So there are structures in the robot in these ranges, but you are right that it is not a true microrobot. I personally don't think there are microrobots yet, since the once presented are controlled externally.

Your ideas about the powering is interesting and one of the problems all/most scientist building small robots have struggled with since the first once in the eighties. Early on in the project thin film batteries were considered as a solution on how to power the robots, these were however not small enough. In the Micron project an inductive coil was used to power the robots on a power floor. Such a coil was abandon since it was too large, leaving solar energy (with its limitations) as an alternative. I guess the future will tell us how really small structures should be powered. Most suggestions today have limitations, If you strip the structure of intelligence you could use magnetic force (Prof Nelson, EPFL), or inductive coupling (need a special floor) (Prof. Donalds, MIT).

Cheers!
kasen
3 / 5 (1) Sep 02, 2009
People should really focus more on functionality than just going for the smallest design they can get to do...something. It's a great engineering feat and definitely useful research, but if they would approach a particular problem instead of trying to make a universal solution from the start, they might get better results. Funding would be easier, too.

I think a power floor would be even more limiting than solar power. The problem with these thingies is that they're too big to benefit from nano-scale powering opportunities, but also too small to be completely autonomous.

Hmm...One application that just crossed my mind would be on water surfaces. The current propulsion system is ideal, you would just need to stabilise it somehow, with some sort of filament, or anchor, so it keeps the solar cell upwards and doesn't capsize. In sufficient numbers they could be used to clear oil leaks, maybe by some electrochemical effect. You'd have to keep hungry fish away, though.
Edqvist
not rated yet Sep 02, 2009
Sorry I saw a flaw in the text above, the electrodes are 150 nm thick.

Functionally doesn’t always give you the big bucks…. Right now nano is a buzz word often used in scientific applications, some 10-20 years ago micro was the hottest word to use.

I-SWARM had two primarily objectives: The first was to produce a large swarm of low level intelligent robots probably capable of producing collective intelligence. The second was to solve the hard ware manufacturing of such a swarm. But I guess other areas like distributed sensor researchers, might show some interest in the technology.
Another unofficial objects from the EU (which funded the entire project) was to improve the possibility for researchers from different European countries to work together.

A solution to the power problem of a microrobot or a distributed sensor is energy scavenging from the surrounding environment (and not just solar cells). This would be very interesting to continue doing.
kasen
not rated yet Sep 02, 2009
Damn, I just now realised that you actually worked on the project. I usually just filter out the names in articles...

So is there any chance of continued funding, or was the EU just happy to prove that European scientists can get along? It'd be a shame not to try to build an automated fabricator, since that's a pretty crucial element for any swarm tech.

Energy could be extracted from all sorts of EM waves in the environment, maybe even acoustic ones. You're already using PVDF for locomotion, couldn't you use it to receive an acoustic signal, at resonant frequency, and harness the piezoelectric effect? I imagine each bot would also act as a relay, increasing the signal's strength throughout the swarm. I'm way out of my area of expertise, though...
Edqvist
not rated yet Sep 03, 2009
I don’t know by the funding, this particular project ended last year, but people are still working with the project, so hopefully things will improve. There is however a large debate going on right now where some politicians want to cut down the EU agriculture subsidiaries (major part of the budget today) and transfer a part to R&D, science and so on (personally I think it should have happened yesterday, but I blame it on the French farmers….)

We are driving the legs (resonating cantilevers) at the first natural resonance or at multiples of the resonance in order to increase the tip deflection of the legs at voltage minimum, so I guess it would be hard to harvest from the same three cantilevers. Maybe extra structures would have to be developed in that case, and definitely improved versions of PVDF should be used.
kasen
not rated yet Sep 03, 2009
Yes, extra structures are what I had in mind, one or several tuned antennas instead of, or in addition to the solar cell.

Or why not put legs up and on the sides, as well as down? When not used for moving, they could act as antennas for harvesting energy from an ultrasonic signal emitted nearby, and the units get some all-terrain abilities, too. Since friction with the ground changes the resonant frequency of the cantilever, you don't risk having all of them running at the same time. Friction with obstacles would do the same, therefore they could also act as collision sensors. It would have to be a very symmetrical shape, though. Maybe a tetrahedron, with 3 legs for locomotion and one for energy at all times? Kinda like a caltrop, but it wouldn't work as a sensor that way.

Like I said, I'm no expert and I'm lacking a lot of technical details, but I somehow think the whole concept could function entirely micromechanical, i.e. without any electronic/digital components. You'd have this programmed audio track to which the swarm starts dancing. The paradigm might work at nano level, too, with EM instead of acoustic waves.

Can't wait to finish my education and do actual R&D...

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