Shrinking the robot


ISSN: 0368-492X

Article publication date: 1 March 2000



Rudall, B.H. (2000), "Shrinking the robot", Kybernetes, Vol. 29 No. 2.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited

Shrinking the robot

Keywords: Automation, Cybernetics, Research, Technological developments

Abstracts:Reports and surveys are given of selected current research and development in systems and cybernetics. They include: Interdisciplinary research, Innovations, Formal methods for safety-critical systems, Biocybernetics, Internet access for all, Management cybernetics, Cybernetics and automation, Shrinking the robot.

Shrinking the robot

Swedish research on small robots

Researchers worldwide are conducting research to produce small robots with many projects concerned with developing really small robotic devices. We know that in many medical research projects microscopic robots have been produced. Now, however, in Sweden it is reported that "robot insects" are being developed with the aim of building devices that are only 1mm long. The potential applications for such systems is enormous.

Often reports from our current breed of scientific researchers are exaggerated, not because they are fraudulent in their claims, but rather because the chances of gaining research funding without the publicity gained by some eye-catching media report get more unlikely. Now that there are so many more universities and research institutes in the world, competition for research funds has never been so fraught.

In Sweden, however, we are told that "robot insects" have actually been developed by researchers at the Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm. The Institute's research team report that they have already built a prototype robot that is only 1cm long, and that they believe that their research breakthrough will allow them to build robots that are less than a millimetre long. They describe their "insect-like robots" as having eight legs and the ability to move at speeds of 1cm per second. The Institute's robotic researchers claim that they have found a new way to control the tiny robot's legs, allowing them to be shrunk far more than other robot legs. A report that describes the construction of the "insect robots" says that:

...they are made from a layer of silicon coated on a membrane. Grooves are cut into the membrane and filled with a plastic material along with tiny heaters. It is when the heaters are activated, the plastic shrinks, causing the grooves to bend forming the insects legs. Altering the current through the legs makes them move, allowing the insect to walk.

The researchers say that the robots can be produced cheaply, since they can be made by a similar process to that used for the manufacture of silicon chips for computers. It is suggested that each robot would cost less than £1. The computer-chip type processing techniques would allow up to 10,000 robots to be made at once using several layers of silicon wafers, the developers claim.

Innovative applications for the tiny robots.

The Swedish inventor of the robot Thorbjorn Ebfors has suggested that at first they could be used as miniature factory workers that will build tiny electronic components. The inventor in an interview reported in the UK Sunday Times (October 1999) said that:

The Japanese are particularly keen on building micro-factories to produce tiny components and will make robot builders be able to use our leg technology to that can work on a conveyor line.

Another application that Dr Ebfors envisages and recorded in the same interview concerned the use of the robots as a "robot spy". He said that:

It is fairly straightforward to build a video camera on top of the "insect", which could then carry it into enemy territory. Of course, because of its size it would be fairly easy to disguise them as "real" insects.

One of the problems encountered with these small robots at present is that they are controlled through tiny wires. The next breakthrough will be when they are controlled by their own electronics systems so that they could work entirely on their own.

The Swedish team seem to accept that shrinking the robot even smaller is no problem, but realise that at present the rest of the components need also to be reduced and the technology to do that is still being developed.

It would appear that with some of the technology at this stage the advent of the "insect" robot is assured. The Royal Institute does, however, seek commercial backing to develop the project further. They say they have, or will have, all the technology needed, and claim that no one else has it, but they still need commercial partners to develop, manufacture and market the research.

B .H. RudallNorbert Wiener Institute and the University of Wales (UK)