Shape-Shifting Mini-Robots Assemble on Command
CREDIT: Argonne National Laboratory
From a swirling cloud of particles and liquid, a new robot is born. Swarms of the tiny robots can carry objects weighing many times their own size, team up for bigger tasks and even repair themselves by simply reshuffling their particles.
While that may evoke the terrifying shape-shifting Terminator assassin from "Terminator 2: Judgment Day," these mighty morphing micro-robots are luckily controlled by magnetic fields to do the bidding of scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois. Their existence hints at a future where tiny robots can assemble, disassemble or reassemble on their own or upon human command.
"We can make them open their jaws and close them," said Alexey Snezhko, a physicist at Argonne National Laboratory. "This gives us the opportunity to use these creatures as mini-robots performing useful tasks. You can move them around and pick up and drop objects."
One robot showed its worth in a new video by picking up a glass bead that weighs four times as much as itself. Such tiny helpers can move particles with greater force than that applied by tractor beam lasers, but also have much more delicate handling than larger mechanical manipulators.
"They can exert very small forces on objects, which is a big challenge for robotics," said Igor Aronson, another physicist at Argonne National Laboratory. "Gripping fragile objects without smashing them has always been difficult for conventional robots."
The physicists create the micro-robots each just half a millimeter wide by applying a magnetic field at a right angle to the surface of a liquid which holds particles. That causes the particles to self-assemble into spiky circular shapes nicknamed "asters," because of their resemblance to the flower of the same name.
A second magnetic field applied parallel to the surface makes the micro-robots move.
That's just the beginning of the researchers' work to create "active self-assembled materials" to help build a smarter future. And, in its own way, it's as astounding as any giant robot in Hollywood's sci-fi blockbusters that can transform into a Camaro.