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.

“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.

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