Skip to main content

Tiny robot can be made to ‘walk’ using pulsed laser beams

Computer chips morph into tiny robots with medical applications

A breakthrough robot can be made to walk by charging up its legs with pulsed laser beams, allowing it to move without the need for an onboard battery. Unfortunately, you’ll probably never get to see it with your own eyes.

Don’t feel too bad, though: At just 5 microns thick, 40 microns wide, and a maximum of 70 microns in length, even its inventors need ultra-magnification technology to see it properly. (For reference, a micron is one-millionth of a meter or, approximately, 1/100 the thickness of a sheet of ordinary paper.)

“The last 50 years have led to incredible developments in the miniaturization of electronics,” Itai Cohen, professor of physics at Cornell University, told Digital Trends. “Today, we can manufacture an entire Intel 4004 chip in an area equivalent to the cross section of a single strand of human hair. The ability to make chips at this scale opens the door to making tiny robots. But there was a missing piece: We did not know how to make the moving robotic appendages at this scale.”

In this latest micro-robot demonstration, the researchers developed actuators that are just 10 nanometers thick, and can form bends that are only a few microns in radius within a fraction of a second. Each tiny robot is composed of a simple circuit that is made up of silicon photovoltaics and four electrochemical actuators for legs. Powering the legs is a matter of toggling the laser back and forth between front and back photovoltaics.

Laser microbot
Cornell University

Future micro-surgeons?

Right now, it’s still early days for the research. The robots qualify as robots — but, perhaps, only barely. “The next big step is to add more complex circuits to make more advanced robots,” Marc Miskin, who worked on the project as a postdoctoral researcher and is now an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania, told Digital Trends. “What can they sense? How do we incorporate feedback or onboard timing? Can they be programmable? The good news is that the semiconductor industry has already developed a lot of technology to go after these questions. We’re all optimistic that these tiny machines may evolve rapidly.”

When they do, the investigators have some big plans for them. Or, rather, some very, very small plans. “An exciting application — though still far in the future — is [for the robot to act] as a microsurgeon,” Paul McEuen, professor of physical science at Cornell, told Digital Trends. “Imagine a swarm of tiny robots at the edge of a cancerous tumor that, cell by cell, sense the health of tissue and then destroy any cancer they find. [This] will require the integration of sensors, intelligence, and careful feedback, but it should be possible.”

A paper describing the work was recently published in the journal Nature.

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…
This quirky humanoid robot can be teleoperated using a VR headset
Pollen robot

The inventors of Reachy, a humanoid, open-source robot created by the French startup Pollen Robotics, have come up with a way to teleoperate the robo-creation through virtual reality. This opens up the possibility of users controlling the robot to carry out potentially complex tasks from anywhere in the world, so long as they're able to slip on a VR headset to do it.

"Using a VR device -- [a] headset and controllers -- a human can take full control of Reachy," Matthieu Lapeyre, CEO and co-founder of Pollen Robotics, told Digital Trends. "You see exactly what Reachy sees in 3D through its dual camera, and Reachy replicates your head and hands motions. You can control the gripper with the controllers’ triggers, and get haptic feedback from the controller vibrations. It's really like you were ‘in’ the robot to do the job. It works through the network, you can be either close or far away from Reachy, as long as you have a proper internet connection it will work the same."

Read more
Future armies could use teams of drones and robots to storm buildings
Ghost robotics

AI Empowered Robots Perform Indoor Surveillance

Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, an Israeli defense firm that dates back to the 1940s, has shown off a new artificial intelligence-powered system that lets drones and robots enter buildings together to scan the insides in order to create maps.

Read more
Man uses brain-controlled prosthetic robot arms to eat a Twinkie
APL eating robot 1

Have Robot Arms, Will Eat Twinkie

Robert "Buz" Chmielewski, a quadriplegic man who suffered an accident in his teens that left him with minimal movement and feeling in his hands, recently fed himself dessert with the aid of two prosthetic robot arms he was able to control using his mind.

Read more