Meet the smallest ever remote-controlled walking robot

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The crab bot developed by Northwestern University engineers, which is even smaller than a flea, could herald the start of a new era of microscale robotics.

According to engineers at Northwestern University in the United States, the tiny robotic crab can “walk, bend, twist, turn, and jump.”
It could herald the start of a new era of microscale robotics.

The machine is powered by a shape-memory alloy material that transforms when heated rather than miniaturised hardware and electronics.

How do they move?

The researchers use a scanned laser beam to rapidly heat the device at various locations on its body, causing it to transform and effectively force the robot to move.

One of the techniques used by the researchers was to cover the device in a thin layer of glass, which forces that part of the robot’s structure to return to its deformed shape once it cooled.

“Because these structures are so small, they cool very quickly.
In fact, shrinking these robots allows them to run faster “Professor John Rogers, who led the experimental research, explained.

Part of the success was due to the manufacturing process, which involves bonding flat precursors to slightly stretched rubber, causing the crabs to take on a 3D shape similar to a pop-up book.

However, the work remains exploratory and experimental.

Despite having a similar range of movement and size, the crab bot is much slower than a flea, with “an average speed of half its body length per second,” according to Professor Yonggang Huang, who led the theoretical work.

“Achieving this at such small scales for terrestrial robots is extremely difficult,” Prof Huang added.

Created on a whim

“Although the research is exploratory at this point, the researchers believe their technology may bring the field closer to realising micro-sized robots that can perform practical tasks inside tightly confined spaces,” said Northwestern University.

“You might imagine micro-robots as agents in industry to repair or assemble small structures or machines, or as surgical assistants to clear clogged arteries, stop internal bleeding, or eliminate cancerous tumours – all in minimally invasive procedures,” Prof Rogers added.

Millimetre-sized robots resembling inchworms, crickets, and beetles were also developed, but Prof Rogers and Huang’s students chose peekytoe crabs.

Prof Rogers stated, “We can build walking robots of almost any size or 3D shape.”

“The sideways crawling motions of tiny crabs, on the other hand, inspired and amused the students.
It was a creative impulse.”

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