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Smaller than a microchip, a tiny robot crab developed by a team of researchers at Northwestern University is nevertheless amazingly capable for its size. It is able to walk, turn or even jump, which is another step towards robotic miniaturization.
According to its designers, it is the smallest remote-controlled walking robot ever created. Scientists decided to give it the shape of a very small crab, barely half a millimeter wide. Despite its size, it is capable of certain feats as it can be made to bend, crawl, walk, turn and even jump. Their progress on the issue was published May 25 in the journal Scientific robotics.
The robot mainly has a purely research purpose, but according to its designers, it represents an open door for multiple uses due to its very small size, which can allow it to perform actions in confined spaces. “ Robotics is an exciting field of research, and the development of micro-scale robots is an interesting topic for scientific research. John A. Rogers, who led the experimental work, said in a statement from the university. “INYou could imagine microrobots acting as agents to repair or assemble small structures or machines in industry, or as assistants to surgeons to clear blocked arteries, stop internal bleeding or remove cancerous tumors – all through minimally invasive procedures “, he emphasizes.
The crab in question is capable of walking at an average speed of half its length per second. Significant performance, even considering the scale, it is only a quarter of a millimeter per second. The researchers did not use any complex electronic or hydraulic design to develop this robot. The principle of action that allows him to walk is quite simple, even in theory. It is entirely based on the principles of elasticity and resilience in the very structure of the robot’s body.
Indeed, its structure was developed from a material consisting of a shape memory alloy. This alloy has a “learned” shape, which invariably returns when heated. When cooling, a thin layer of glass elastically returns the previously heated part to a deformed state.
A design method inspired by pop-up books
For example, in the case of one of the crab legs, this means that it has two positions that can be alternated, heating and cooling it sequentially. To bring the ability to “walk”, no more is needed. For this, scientists use laser beams that allow them to very quickly heat up targeted areas of the robot’s body. Depending on the movements of the laser, the direction of the robot-crab can also be controlled. One would imagine that this would take time, but in reality, because these structures are very small, the cooling rate is very high “, – explains John Rogers. “ In fact, reducing the size of these robots allows them to run faster. “.
The folding method used to create such a small structure is inspired by the method of pop-up children’s books that the researchers experimented with eight years ago. The crab was designed completely flat, using geometric shapes. This flat structure was then glued to a slightly stretched rubber backing. When the latter is released, the crab assumes its three-dimensional form. This method allows you to create a variety of shapes, and researchers have also created crickets, beetles, caterpillars…
If they chose a small crab for the presented prototype, it is for a very simple reason. ” With these assembly methods and material concepts, we can create walking robots of almost any size or 3D shape says Rogers. ” But the students felt inspired and satisfied by the small crabs crawling to the side. It was a creative whim “.