Print 16 comment(s) - last by JonnyDough.. on Jun 5 at 5:21 PM

They can dance if they want to; two of the tiny microbots dance around each other, controlled by an electric field.

Bruce Macdonald, professor of biochemsitry and computer science at Duke University and creator of the microbots, explains the robots' design.

After starting separated, four microbots are guided by the field to come together, ready for bigger chores.  (Source: All images courtesy of Duke University)
Who says robots can't dance?

With no guide wires or tethers, scientists at Duke University have been able to maneuver microrobots using electrical field, leading them in an intricate dance that could eventually allow them to work cooperatively to perform assorted tasks. Self assembly is a hot new field that will only grow with time and as interest in nanoresearch heats up. The little microrobots will likely someday allow for such self assembly, but for now they're content to dance the night away.

The tiny robots pirouette in video captured by researchers over a 1 mm dance floor -- the robotic dance was set to the Strauss waltz. The new robots are 100 times smaller than any previous robots of their kind, measuring just microns. And they weigh less than a hundredth of the previous smallest bots.

Bruce Donald, a Duke Professor of computer science and biochemistry, who led the project states, "It's marvelous to be able to do assembly and control at this fine a resolution with such very, very tiny things."
The new machines are sometimes known as microelectromechanical system (MEMS) microrobots. They are small enough that they can navigate over chip surfaces, allowing them to assist in tiny on-chip labs, such as chemical sensors. The little devices turn and pivot by using a boom like arm, which is drawn down to the surface by electric charges. Researchers compare the mechanism to a dirt biker using their heel to navigate around a turn.

As well as taking new records in size and weight, the new bots also are the first microrobots to perform a group maneuver under the same control position. By using slight variations in the bots' different dimensions and stiffness and mathematical modeling, researchers can use a single varying electrical field to allow the robots to execute organized sets of commands.

The team’s research is presented in a report to the Hilton Head Workshop on Solid State Sensors, Actuators and Microsystems in South Carolina. In the report presented on June 1 and 2, Donald's team summarizes the breakthrough stating, "Our work constitutes the first implementation of an untethered, multi-microrobotic system."

How the tiny robots are built and controlled will be explained in more detail in a paper in the upcoming edition of the Journal of Microelectromechanical Systems.

Professor Donald brings a great deal of experience to the table. He has been working on miniature MEMs robots since 1992. The research led him to Cornell and then at Stanford and Dartmouth and finally to Duke. Professor Donald had initial success with creating micro-robots which simulated cillia, rocking back and forth to move tiny computer chips or other objects. He describes, "[The robots] move objects such as microchips on top of them in the same way that a singer in a rock band will crowd surf. We made 15,000 silicon cilia in a square inch."

The next step was a 2006 February report in the Journal of Microelectromechanical Systems, in which Donald and colleague Christopher Levey, Dartmouth College physicist, and Donald’s graduate student Igor Paprotny detailed the current design. The new robot, finally built and fully working measures a mere 60 microns (µm) wide, 250 microns (µm) long and 10 microns (µm) high. They scavenged their power from a charged surface. The microrobots are propelled by their “scratch-drive” motion actuator -- the arm that swings the main body around its end point. The result is the microrobot movies in tiny steps of 10 to 20 nm, but can move very fast, taking up to 20,000 steps a second.

The concept of one signal controlling many responses is analogous to the way cells use proteins to respond specifically to chemical signals, says Donald. Professor Donald has worked extensively in computational biochemistry and biology. The culmination of his and his teams work is the ability of allowing multiple separate robots to be hided into a "team huddle". These huddles could lead to something greater; says Donald, "Initially, we wanted to build something like a car that could drive around at the microscopic scale. Now what we’ve been able to do is create the first microscopic traffic jam."

However the microrobots' progress has taken time; the bots in larger form first were designed by Donald between 1997 and 2002, but it took three more years to move under global control and additional three years to move more than one independently at once. Donald explains the challenges, stating, "The hard thing was designing how multiple microrobots can all work independently, even while they receive the same power and control."

The research has finally advanced to the point where it may have practical applications in fields such as medicine. The Duke Institute for Brain Sciences is sponsoring research to see if the new robots can be used to insert carbon nanotube electrodes into brain cells. The bots could also be possibly used in drug delivery.

The robotics project itself is funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Homeland Security.

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Here come The Replicators.
By wavetrex on 6/4/2008 1:36:54 PM , Rating: 5
They devoured the Asgard galaxy, they will devour ours too...

RE: Here come The Replicators.
By amanojaku on 6/4/2008 1:44:40 PM , Rating: 3
You sure they won't be too busy auditioning for "So you think you can dance?"

Get out your calenders!
By nvalhalla on 6/4/2008 2:02:32 PM , Rating: 5
This is a joyous day! Ahh, who hasn't DREAMED of Untethered Dancing Microrobots? It seems that mankind's ultimate goal has finally been reached. Truly, this is the greatest thing that has ever happened.

RE: Get out your calenders!
By kyleb2112 on 6/5/2008 11:42:33 AM , Rating: 2
Sure they're untethered and dancing. But are they fully functional?

Homeland Security
By PAPutzback on 6/4/2008 2:11:10 PM , Rating: 3
Perhaps they can sneak these into the enemies drinking water and then have them assemble in side to cause an aneurism. Just drop them all over Iraq and Afghanistan and then instead of wasting bullets just send out the command to a localized area for the dancers to assemble and destroy. Let's Tango Taliban.

RE: Homeland Security
By Aloonatic on 6/5/2008 7:37:07 AM , Rating: 2
Poison would probably be cheaper and easier.

I like your way of thinking though;

"How can I turn this scientific advance into a weapon of mass destruction?"

RE: Homeland Security
By JonnyDough on 6/5/2008 5:15:09 PM , Rating: 2
Yeah, I was thinking the same thing. A few radioactive isotopes would be a lot easier. You know, I think we might have a few extra sitting around in a mountain somewhere. Why go to all the trouble?

It seems our friend there believes everyone not like him is an enemy, and is ready to follow anything he sees on t.v.

Maybe we should slip him some nano robots, if nothing else maybe they'll cause sterility.

Hot sun, beatn' down...
By Locutus465 on 6/4/2008 1:55:21 PM , Rating: 2
burning my feet just walking around.

Hot sun making me sweat
'Gators getting close, hasn't got me yet

I can't dance, I can't talk.
Only thing about me is the way I walk.
I can't dance, I can't sing
I'm just standing here selling everything.

Blue Jean's sitting on the beach,
her dog's talking to me, but she's out of reach.

She's got a body under that shirt,
but all she wants to do is rub my face in the dirt.

Cause, I can't dance, I can't talk.
Only thing about me is the way I walk.
I can't dance, I can't sing
I'm just standing here selling.


I think that would have been a better choice than staus

RE: Hot sun, beatn' down...
By JediJeb on 6/5/2008 10:41:06 AM , Rating: 2
Careful, the RIAA will be beating down your door soon.

RE: Hot sun, beatn' down...
By JonnyDough on 6/5/2008 5:17:29 PM , Rating: 2
I can't dance, I can't talk.

Apparently, you can't be funny either. Keep walking.

By DeepBlue1975 on 6/4/2008 2:09:32 PM , Rating: 2
Can you play Crysis with them?

Allright, I deserve all the downrating I can take for recycling this stupid joke, but I had to make it in this article :D

RE: But...
By killerroach on 6/4/2008 4:37:47 PM , Rating: 2
Sure... make a suit out of them and play Crysis for real. :)

Have you ever read...
By Schrag4 on 6/5/2008 9:38:29 AM , Rating: 2
...Michael Crichton's Prey ?

Tiny, self replicating nano-bots light enough to 'swim' through the air in a swarm, able to communicate with each other wirelessly become sentient and decide to do something other than what their human creators ask of them. This at least sounds like a step in the right direction!

RE: Have you ever read...
By JonnyDough on 6/5/2008 5:21:04 PM , Rating: 2
Crichton, (who I have much respect for, especially for his prologue in "Timeline") lies somewhere between an evil prophet at worst and a good scientist at best. If he says it could happen, it probably could...although it's still unlikely.

What's more likely is that we'll wipe ourselves out using some other method, or the earth will be inhabitable due to natural process before we create a new life form from minerals. But you can dream.

It's time for Safety Dance!
By MrBlastman on 6/4/08, Rating: 0
By i3arracuda on 6/5/2008 9:54:18 AM , Rating: 2
"There is a single light of science, and to brighten it anywhere is to brighten it everywhere." -- Isaac Asimov

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