Skip to main content

Self-assembling microrobots can be programmed to form a tiny steerable car

It’s easy to think that the world’s most exciting robots are those that exist on the larger end of the size spectrum, whether it’s humanoid robots created by Boston Dynamics or even larger mech-inspired robots. Researchers at Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems think differently, however.

They’ve developed a new way of controlling self-assembling mobile micromachines. It allows tiny micromachines of different designs to be programmed to assemble in different formations. Remember the way that different “Zords” in Power Rangers joined to together to form a larger Megazord? It’s basically that — only with self-assembling robots between 40 to 50 micro meters in size. That’s around half the diameter of a single human hair.

“[With this work,] we have demonstrated microrobots that can spontaneously assemble themselves with a preprogrammed organization,” Berk Yigit, a Ph.D. student in the Max Planck Institute’s Physical Intelligence Department, told Digital Trends.

Researchers take novel approach to self-assembling mobile micromachines

“We showed for the first time [that] microrobots can be assembled with controlled organization of structural (for example, the chassis of a car) and motor units (such as wheels) under [an] electric field,” said Yunus Alapan, a mechanical engineer who also worked on the project. “We have achieved this by simply controlling the three-dimensional shape of the assembling components. This novel and straightforward approach has enabled us to create micron-scale robots with so many different configurations, from a microcar and rocket to microrotors, as well as three-dimensional micropumps.”

Impressively, controlling the organization of these components can be done with the simple flick of a switch. Simply changing the electric field frequency can alter the locomotion mode of the miniature bots. The researchers think the work could have biomedical application, such as creating tiny robots for delivering drug molecules.

In the future, the team is hoping to develop components that can carry out individual functions, such as sensing or cargo loading. “[One] route we are currently pursuing is achieving the programmable organization of actuators over a soft microrobot body,” Alapan said. “A flexible robot body with controlled actuators distributed around would allow us to generate more complex locomotion capabilities, such as swimming freely in liquid similar to sperm cells or crawling over surfaces, akin to mammalian cells.”

A paper describing the research was recently published in the journal Nature Materials.

Editors' Recommendations

Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
The Audi AI:me concept shows how a self-driving city car can fight boredom
Audi AI:ME concept



Read more
Has Apple rebooted its self-driving car program to develop autonomous vans?
2018 volkswagen t6 transporter california review 15

The on-again, off-again iCar is one of the most mysterious projects Apple is believed to be working on. And now, though nothing is official yet, a recent report claims we need to stop referring to the vehicle as the iCar and call it the iVan instead. The model is well on its way to production, according to a German magazine, and it will arrive as a battery-powered van rather than as a sleek sedan or city-friendly hatchback.

Germany's Manager Magazin learned from insiders working on the project that Apple has started building prototypes of its upcoming vehicle. The publication calls the model a kleinbus, a German term which literally translate to "small bus" in English. In Germany, it refers to a passenger-carrying commercial van like the Volkswagen Transporter (pictured above), the Mercedes-Benz Metris, or the Ford Transit.

Read more
Apple opens up about its self-driving car program in letter to NHTSA
apple file system


Apple doesn't like talking about its ongoing efforts to develop self-driving car technology; the program has been one of the company's most secretive facets in recent years. In a rare instance of openness, Apple voluntarily wrote a letter to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) that sheds light on how the company is testing the technology, and the safety precautions it's taking to avoid accidents.

Read more