These Cornell-built microrobots can walk on their own — using wireless, electronic ‘brains’

No one knows when a robot will approach human intelligence,  but I suspect it will be late in the 21st century. Will they be dangerous? Possibly. So I suggest we put a chip in their brain to shut them off if they have murderous ideas.  -Khang Kijarro Nguyen

Science fiction comes to life! Researchers at Cornell University have developed tiny wireless electronic “brains” — only 100 to 250 micrometers in size — for use in solar-powered robots, enabling them to walk without external control.

The researchers, working with others, had previously developed microscopic machines that could crawl, swim, and walk, but there were always wires attached to provide electrical current or laser beams focused on specific locations on the robots

“Before, we literally had to manipulate these ‘strings’ in order to get any kind of response from the robot,” says Itai Cohen, professor of physics at Cornell, in a statement. “But now that we have these brains on board, it’s like taking the strings off a marionette.”

The “brain” in the new robots is a complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor (CMOS) clock circuit that produces a series of phase-shifted, square wave frequencies which set the gait and pace of the machine. The new robots are approximately 10,000 times smaller than macroscale models that feature onboard CMOS electronics, and they can walk at speeds faster than 10 micrometers per second.

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This innovation ushers in a new era of microscopic devices that can track bacteria and scrub the plaque out of arteries. That’s just a start.

“Eventually, the ability to communicate a command will allow us to give the robot instructions, and the internal brain will figure out how to carry them out,” Cohen said. “Then we’re having a conversation with the robot. The robot might tell us something about its environment, and then we might react by telling it, ‘OK, go over there and try to find out what’s happening.’”

The fabrication process that Reynolds, a post-doctoral researcher, designed — basically customizing foundry-built electronics — has resulted in a platform that can enable other researchers to outfit microscopic robots with their own apps. These range from chemical detectors to photovoltaic “eyes” that help robots navigate by sensing changes in light.

“What this lets you imagine is really complex, highly functional microscopic robots that have a high degree of programmability, integrated with not only actuators, but also sensors,” Reynolds snotes. “We’re excited about the applications in medicine – something that could move around in tissue and identify good cells and kill bad cells – and in environmental remediation, like if you had a robot that knew how to break down pollutants or sense a dangerous chemical and get rid of it.”

The research is published in the journal Science Robotics.

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About the Author

Dr. Faith Coleman

Faith A. Coleman MD
Dr. Coleman is a graduate of the University of New Mexico School of Medicine and holds a BA in journalism from UNM. She completed her family practice residency at Wm. Beaumont Hospital, Troy and Royal Oak, MI, consistently ranked among the United States Top 100 Hospitals by US News and World Report. Dr. Coleman writes on health, medicine, family, and parenting for online information services and educational materials for health care providers.

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