Nano Bots Have Arrived

New Nano Bots have just hit the market. One particularly impressive model is the crab-shaped figure below even with pinchers less than 1 mm across! More details on these micro machines can be found in this week's journal of Science and Robotics.

These animal-like robots are distinguishable by the minute and miniaturized size. The smallest in the group are only as wide as a single hair, the largest in the group only slightly smaller than a flea. They have scrunching inchworms available too, spring-coiling crickets, and many other forms as well. Why Nano Bots you may ask? “There’s quite a bit of interest these days in nano bots. Any small-scale structures that can be controlled remotely for a multitude of purposes. Some envision the technology being useful for surgical operations or in diagnostic purposes for the context of clinical medicine,” says John Rogers, professor of materials science and engineering at Northwestern University, also an author on the paper. “What we’ve tried to do is put forward some ideas in terrestrial robots of that type that can add to the portfolio of capabilities that are developing in this emerging area of research.”

Shuffle crab footage courtesy of Northwestern University This slew of micro bots are not programmed to do any specific functions. Besides being pint sized. They’re constructed and assembled similarly to silicon microchips.

“If you think about a silicon foundry or a setup of that sort, it involves a deposition of thin layers of materials and then patterning approaches that allow those materials to be structured with very high resolution on planar surfaces, typically, semiconductor wafers,” says Rogers. Unlike silicon chips, robots are intrinsically three-dimensional. But he and his team found a way to make them in a 2D form that pops up in 3D, like a “kid’s pop-up book in a sense.”

Inch worm bots move to the beat of the light at Northwestern University To make nano bots, first you start with 2D stacks of patterned film, then you bond the film to a pre-stretched rubber substrate. “What happens when you relax the pre-stretch is that the rubber substrate imposes compressive forces on that flat pattern structure such that it buckles up,” Explains the researchers “Everything starts out planar and flat, and then through this buckling process we cause those material structures to move out of the plane into a 3D geometry that defines our inchworms or grasshoppers or crabs.” This is the structure or skeleton, of the nano bot. Then comes it's muscles. The muscles designed from a shape memory alloy material that changes shape when heat is introduced. In the crab design, the muscles appear as blackened joints that sit between each leg and the body. Repetitive heating and cooling causes limbs on the robot to hinge back and forth to produce movement.

Sweeping lights makes spring-loaded robots jump. To control nano bots remotely, lasers are a ideal they're high intensity yet can be focused on specific points, allowing for each individual limbs to be controlled. Depending on how the limbs are heated, nano bots can move in correspondence to their structural design. The way the laser strobes or illuminates the nanobots determines the movement of the legs and direction the nano bot moves. When researchers strobed the laser from right to left, the crab nano-bots move left to right. “They're remote-controlled in the sense that the pattern of illumination is determining the motion,” said the researchers. “It’s not remote controlled in the sense of an RC car being remote controlled because we don’t have an active radio built into the robot.” In theory, you can control many nano bots at once with something like laser light shows paired by scanning mirrors and AV light tech displays. Only requirement is a direct line of sight. These fabrications will work with any layout, the reason for bio-inspired design may be reflective of the history of work that has come from the researchers and their collaborators, including a maple seed-style flying microchip, a fly eye camera, and artificial camouflaging cephalopod skin. Nano-bots are made like microcomputers, “it would be very easy to build into the robot’s bodies any kind of electronic circuit you can imagine,” the researchers say. “That will open up a lot of functional options in the future whether it’s sensing, or energy storage, or radio communication—all kinds of things follow from that.”

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