Researchers are developing ways to mass-produce tiny robots the size of a fly that operate like swarms of insects to collect data to aid in surveillance, micromanufacturing, medicine, and more. Measuring in at under 4 mm square, the microbots have all the equipment necessary to move, communicate, and collect data, plus they generate all of their own power via solar panels.
These mini-robots are quite revolutionary, considering that they contain all that’s necessary to collect data and relay it back using one single circuit board. In the past single-chip robots have presented significant design and manufacturing challenges due in part to the use of solder as an adhesive. These new microbots use conductive adhesive to attach the components to a double-sided flexible printed circuit board using surface mount technology. The circuit is then folded into thirds and wrapped around the ASIC (application-specific integrated circuit).
On top, a solar cell generates power for the robot and delivers 3.6 V to the unit, which is enough for it to walk. Locomotion is achieved via three vibrating legs, while a fourth horizontal vibrating leg is used as a touch sensor. While a single microbot isn’t much use by itself, a large group of these mini-devices can establish swarm intelligence to generate more complex behavior. Computers receiving the data from all these swarming devices can then create a more realistic and complex picture. The project is based on the concept of I-SWARM (intelligent small-world autonomous robots for micro-manipulation), and was inspired by the behavior of insects.
Researchers from Sweden, Spain, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland are working hard on this new technology under a limited budget. Their recent attempts at fabrication of the solar powered bots showed that advances need to be made to the production process in order for them to be efficiently mass produced.