JAN 20, 2016 12:00 AM PST

Mini ‘force fields' control tiny robot soldiers

Researchers are testing a way to control a single microbot that operates as part of a group. The robots are too small for batteries, so instead magnetic fields allow them to move independently while collaborating with a team.

The robots tested are magnetic disks about 2 millimeters in diameter—about twice the size of a pinhead—that slide across a surface. The goal is to create microbots that are around 250 microns in diameter, or roughly the size of a dust mite.
"We want to be able to control them individually so we can have some robots here doing one thing, and some robots there doing something else at the same time," says David Cappelleri.

“The reason we want independent movement of each robot is so they can do cooperative manipulation tasks,” says David Cappelleri, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Purdue University.

“Think of ants. They can independently move, yet all work together to perform tasks such as lifting and moving things.

“We want to be able to control them individually so we can have some robots here doing one thing, and some robots there doing something else at the same time.”

Findings are detailed in a research paper in the journal Micromachines.

Controlling the individual

The team developed a system for controlling the robots with individual magnetic fields from an array of tiny planar coils.

“The robots are too small to put batteries on them, so they can’t have onboard power,” Cappelleri says. “You need to use an external way to power them. We use magnetic fields to generate forces on the robots. It’s like using mini force fields.”

The research is revealing precisely how to control the robots individually.

“We need to know, if a robot is here and it needs to go there, how much force needs to be applied to the robot to get it from point A to point B?” Cappelleri explains. “Once you figure out what that force has to be, then we say, what kind of magnetic field strength do we need to generate that force?”

In previously developed systems the microbots were controlled using fewer coils located around the perimeter of the “workspace” containing the tiny machines. However, this “global” field is not fine enough to control individual microrobots independently.

“The approach we came up with works at the microscale, and it will be the first one that can give truly independent motion of multiple microrobots in the same workspace because we are able to produce localized fields as opposed to a global field,” Cappelleri says. “What we can do now, instead of having these coils all around on the outside, is to print planar coils directly onto the substrate.”

The team moves the robots using attractive or repulsive forces and by varying the strength of the electrical current in the coils.

“You can think about using teams of robots to assemble components on a small scale, which we could use for microscale additive manufacturing,” Cappelleri says.

Robots that build tiny machines

Independently controlled microbots working in groups might be useful in building microelectromechanical systems, or MEMS, minuscule machines that could have numerous applications from medicine to homeland security.

“So far people have been good at making MEMS devices containing different components,” he says. “But a lot of times the components are made from different processes and then have to be assembled to make the final device. This is very challenging.

“We can instead assemble them with our robots. And on the biological side we might use them for cell sorting, cell manipulation, characterization, and so on. You could think about putting the microcoils on the bottom of a petri dish.”

Microbots equipped with probe-like “force sensors” might then be used to detect cancer cells in a biopsy.

“Cancer cells have different stiffness characteristics than non-cancer cells, and in some of our previous work we put force sensors on the end of these robots to figure out which ones are stiffer than others,” Cappelleri says.

The coils were made by printing a copper pattern with the same technology used to manufacture printed circuit boards. They can be scaled down from their current size of about 4 millimeters. A new process, however, was needed to create a microscale prototype, he says.

The research is ongoing. The team will attempt to use microscale prototypes to assemble components for MEMS devices. One potential obstacle is the effect of van der Waals forces between molecules that are present on the scale of microns but not on the macroscale of everyday life. The forces might cause “stiction” between tiny components that affect their operation.

The National Science Foundation funded the research.

This article was originally published on futurity.org.
About the Author
  • Futurity features the latest discoveries by scientists at top research universities in the US, UK, Canada, Europe, Asia, and Australia. The nonprofit site, which launched in 2009, is supported solely by its university partners (listed below) in an effort to share research news directly with the public.
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