Tiny, Versatile Motor “Walks” to Complete Tasks
Jeffrey Heimgartner posted on July 09, 2019 |

The complex nature of constructing robots often means developing an expensive, custom machine designed for a specific task or one that is reconfigurable but may not provide optimal performance. MIT researchers are hoping to change that with the development of a versatile, five-component system that can be configured into various devices, including a tiny motor that is capable of moving back and forth or turning gears.  

The newest development comes after years of researching a standardized kit that is able to assemble various techs. Led by Professor Neil Gershenfeld, the research team developed 5mm-scale components, comprised of both rigid and flexible structural materials, a coil and magnet that attach with a standard connector.

Along with Will Langford, MIT grad student, the team used the kit to create a motor that can move an appendage via mechanical steps or can use those steps to “walk” across a surface similarly to how muscles move through molecular motors. The parts can also be assembled for gripping if needed, yet they can be reassembled later to perform a different task. Called digital materials, the parts are designed similar to LEGO blocks but on a micro level and can be joined in reverse.

MIT’s walking microrobot features five basic parts that can be assembled and reassembled to perform different tasks. (Image courtesy of  Will Langford/MIT.)
MIT’s walking microrobot features five basic parts that can be assembled and reassembled to perform different tasks. (Image courtesy of Will Langford/MIT.)

The motor Langford assembled has the ability to lift seven times its own weight. Since this system features five fundamental parts, it offers the flexibility of being configured for the right size and power. The team’s concept allows for the building blocks to complement the application, potentially eliminating the need for special techniques to create different sizes of assemblies, from parts small enough for a nanorobot to those big enough for a megarobot.

Along with movement, the team added logic into the mix, which is especially important for tiny robots in confined spaces. Langford integrated parts, including some with millimeter-sized integrated circuits, to allow for electrical signal connections in three dimensions.

Having a standard kit of components makes automation much easier. Langford developed a machine that combines elements from a 3D printer and a pick-and-place machine to produce complete robotic systems from digital designs. According to Gershenfeld, the machine is a first step toward the ultimate goal of “making an assembler that can assemble itself out of the parts that it’s assembling.”

Interested in more robotic innovations? Check out How a Toothless Gearbox May be a Breakthrough for Robot Accuracy and This Origami-Inspired Robot Hand Can Pick Up Almost Anything.


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