Swarms of microrobots with big goals

Swarms of microrobots with big goals

Summary: Following a previous EU-funded project which allowed to build several kinds of microrobots in the last three years, another project has already started to deploy "real" swarms of up to 1,000 robot clients. Such robot swarms are expected to perform micro assembly, biological, medical or cleaning tasks.

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TOPICS: Emerging Tech
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In "Mini robots to undertake major tasks?," IST Results describes a EU-funded project which allowed to build several kinds of microrobots in the last three years. These robots are very small (about 1.5 cm by 3 cm), have limited on-board intelligence and are wirelessly controlled by a central robot control system. A follow-on project has already started, with an even more ambitious goal: deploy "real" swarms of up to 1,000 robot clients. Such robot swarms are expected to perform "a variety of applications, including micro assembly, biological, medical or cleaning tasks."

The project described by IST Results, MiCRoN, was led by Jörg Seyfried of the Institute for Process Control and Robotics (IPR) at the University of Karlsruhe in Germany.

Let's start with an illustration showing what a future robot swarm will look like (Credit: IPR).

I-Swarm future microrobots

And here is a description of the robots which are already operational.

"Each one would measure about 1.5cm by 3 cm," says IPR´s Joerg Seyfried. "They were designed to be complete robots, with different kinds of actuators for gripping, cell manipulation, and so on. Each one would be wireless, with lots of electronics on board, and an infrared control system -- rather like a TV remote, but two-way in this case. They would be able to cooperate together on a range of tasks."

Obviously, the reason why these microrobots can collaborate is because they are part of a networked system.

"The individual robots are not that intelligent," explains Seyfried. "They don't, for example, know where they are, although they know which direction they are moving in. We developed a special positioning system, so that we know where each robot is. It views them from 40 to 50 cm above. They are controlled by a central robot control system, with several networked computers for planning and commands – this could theoretically control many robots."

And here are some applications which were tested using these microrobots.

"The first was a medical or biological application, in which the robot was handling biological cells, injecting liquid into them," Seyfried explains. "The second scenario was micro-assembly, in which the robot soldered tiny parts. The final scenario looked at atomic force, with the robot mounting atomic force and doing experiments on it."

Here is an example of these microrobots used as SEM (scanning electron microscope)-tools, assembling the wheel of a micro gear inside the SEM (Credit: IPR).

MiCRoN microrobots as SEM-tools

But these microrobots can also be used in labs for the micro assembly of prototypes or to perform tasks such as cell injection.

Below is an example of cell manipulation, "which have typical dimensions in the micrometer range. Here, tasks range from simple cell pick-and-place operations to injection of substances into the cell" (Credit: IPR).

MiCRoN microrobots doing cell manipulation

Another project has now followed, with even more ambitious goals, the I-Swarm project (Intelligent Small World Autonomous Robots for Micro-manipulation), also led by IPR. Here is a short introduction to I-Swarm.

This project aims to take a leap forward in robotics research by combining experts in microrobotics, in distributed and adaptive systems as well as in self-organising biological swarm systems. The project aims at technological advances to facilitate the mass-production of microrobots, which can then be employed as a "real" swarm consisting of up to 1,000 robot clients.
These clients will all be equipped with limited, pre-rational on-board intelligence. The swarm will consist of a huge number of heterogeneous robots, differing in the type of sensors, manipulators and computational power. Such a robot swarm is expected to perform a variety of applications, including micro assembly, biological, medical or cleaning tasks.

And for more information about these "real artificial ants", please visit these pages about the microrobots prototypes and their possible applications.

Sources: IST Results, February 24, 2006; and various web sites

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Topic: Emerging Tech

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