Don’t bug out: Spider-like microbots will get under your skin … in a good way

It might sound like the beginning of a nightmare, but researchers are developing a line of small, insect-inspired robots that could one day crawl into your body and help fix broken bits. They’re suspicious in their squishiness. Soft, flexible, and shaped like spiders. But their creators think future versions could be designed to perform tasks that are out of reach of humans.

In a paper published recently in the journal Advanced Materials, a team of roboticists from Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), and Boston University report that they’ve created these multifunctional microbots thanks to a new fabrication process that lets them build millimeter-scale machines with micrometer-scale features. Similarly sized robots have been created before, but not ones as dynamic as this. To demonstrate their breakthrough, they created a transparent spider bot modeled off of the brilliant Australian peacock spider.

spider microbot spiderbot
Wyss Institute at Harvard University

“The idea of designing and fabricating a soft robot inspired by the peacock spider comes from the fact that this small insect embodies a large number of unsolved challenges in soft robotics,” Tommaso Ranzani, an assistant professor at Boston University and first author of the study, told Digital Trends. “Indeed it is less than a centimeter wide, has features down to the micron scale, a well defined three-dimensional structure, and a large number of independently controllable degrees of freedom in only a couple of centimeters width. In addition, it is characterized by beautiful color patterns. We saw here an opportunity to advance the manufacturing capabilities in small-scale soft robotics and to demonstrate the capabilities of our process.”

Ranzani and his colleagues developed a fabrication approach they’ve called Morph (or, Microfluidic Origami for Reconfigurable Pneumatic/Hydraulic). To create the robot, they stacked 12 layers of an elastic silicone to form its legs, torso, and abdomen, and used processes like laser-micro-machining to get measurements precise.

The spiderbot isn’t just for show — it’s multifunctional, capable of flexing it’s joint, moving its legs, and even raising its abdomen to mimic its wildlife counterpart. This is done by injecting microfluids into a network of hollow channels running from the spider’s abdomen to its legs.

The researchers think someday their manufacturing process could lead to soft and dynamic microbots that can perform delicate medical tasks inside the body or search and rescue missions in areas too difficult or dangerous for people to access.

Let’s just hope they come up with a less nightmarish design.

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