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Tiny crab robot can destroy tumors

AmericaEngineers at Northwestern University have developed the world’s smallest remote-controlled walking robot that takes the form of a tiny peekytoe crab.

Micro crab robot works by elastic force.  Photo: Northwestern University

Micro crab robot works by elastic force. Image: Northwestern University

Just half a millimeter wide, the crab can bend, twist, crawl, walk, spin and even jump. The team also developed small millimeter-sized robots that simulate worms, grasshoppers and beetles. Although at this stage, the research is only exploratory, the authors are confident that technology can help realize micro-robots, specialized in performing real-life tasks in tight spaces. They described the new robot in the journal Science Robotics on May 25.

“You can think of a microrobot as an agent specializing in the repair or assembly of structures or small industrial machines, or as a surgical assistant helping to clear an artery blockage, prevent internal bleeding, or remove a mass. tumor, while being as invasive as possible,” said John A. Rogers, study leader. “Our technology enables a wide range of modes of controlled movement, being able to travel at an average speed equivalent to half the length of a robot’s body per second.”

Smaller than a flea, the crab robot doesn’t work thanks to complex hardware, hydraulics or electricity. Instead, the robot uses the elastic force of the body. To build the robot, Rogers and his colleagues used a shape-remembering alloy material, which can transform into a “remembered” shape when heated. In this case, the team used a scanning laser beam to rapidly heat the robot at different locations on its body. A thin glass coating helps the robot return to its original shape when it cools.

When the robot changes from the original shape to the memorized shape and vice versa, the process creates movement. The laser beam not only controls the robot remotely, but the laser scanning direction also determines the direction of the robot. For example, scanning from left to right will cause the robot to move from right to left. Because the robot is so small, it cools very quickly, explains Rogers. In fact, reducing the size of robots allows them to go faster.

To build the tiny robot, Rogers and his colleagues used a technique they introduced eight years ago, the auto-on assembly method. First, the team built the forerunner of the crab robot in a two-dimensional planar geometry. They then incorporated the precursors into a lightweight stretchy rubber substrate. When loosening the substrate after stretching, a longitudinal bending occurs that causes the crab robot to bounce back to its 3-D shape. With this manufacturing method, the team at Northwestern University can develop robots in many different shapes and sizes.

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