Maryland robotics lab builds armies of tiny robots

Sarah Bergbreiter builds tiny robots. In her TED Talk Why I make robots the size of a grain of rice she discusses the methods used to control the robots. Mobility, mechanisms, motors, sensors, control and power are all carefully considered and balanced to create the idealized army of robot ants.

Cockroaches studied at UC Berkley were said to be successful at moving over difficult terrain because of the way their bodies combine rigid and soft materials. Small insects store spring energy in their legs and can use that to jump incredibly high distances.

Bergbreiter’s team uses these ideas of soft and hard materials to create a jumping mechanism that combines silicon with silicon rubber. Compressing and releasing a platform gives the spring action for the robot to jump. In the lab the spring is actuated using a method Bergbreiter calls “graduate student with tweezers”.

In the video demonstration the 4 millimeter mechanisms jump almost 40 centimeters high. Millimeter scale motors are being developed to integrate into the tiny springs and control the movement and direction of the jumps.

Magnets are used to manually control the movement of the robot legs and the current robots are around one centimeter cubes. Ultimately the goal is the get sensing, power and control all onboard the robot and have the system work autonomously.

The four by four by seven millimeter robot demonstrated in the talk is actuated using a rocket. Actuation comes from exposure to light. The video demonstration shows light being added as input to the robot and the robot flying up into the air.

Sarah ends the talk with incredible possibilities for her robots. Small robots could run through the rubble of a natural disaster and search for survivors. A swarm of robots could run around a bridge and inspect its entire surface to understand when failures might occur.

Construction could be transformed if tiny robot armies built structures the way that termites build their large mounds. Eventually robots might be able to swim through your blood or perform operations without cutting into a patient.

This is a great talk full of real accomplishment and amazing possibility. Sarah Bergbreiter is an energetic and engaging speaker with an obvious passion for her robots and the work she’s doing. The Maryland Microrobotics Laboratory website is full of projects, publications and media showcasing the projects discussed in this talk.