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Tiny Titans: Micro-Robots Revolutionizing Diverse Fields

TECHNOLOGYTiny Titans: Micro-Robots Revolutionizing Diverse Fields

Scientists from Washington State University are working on the smallest, lightest, and fastest micro-robots ever created. Such devices, inspired by mechanisms known from nature, are becoming an increasingly significant field of robotics. They have a growing range of applications in various sectors. Micro-robots could provide solutions for tasks such as conducting rescue operations. In the future, some of these technologies may have to replace creatures such as bees, which are at risk of extinction. Other uses relate to micro-robotic surgery and the direct delivery of drugs to the source of a disease.

“Micro-robots are intelligent machines ranging in size from a millimeter to a centimeter, capable of navigating their environment and performing complex tasks. The robots I’m working on rely on Shape Memory Alloy (SMA) feet, special alloys that shrink to a previously remembered state when heated and return to that state after cooling and reheating. Using this mechanism in actuators, we can initiate movement of the robot,” explains Conor Trygstad, a doctoral student at the Autonomous Micro-robotic Systems Laboratory at Washington State University, in an interview with Newseria Innowacje news agency.

The robots in question are the smallest, lightest, and fastest micro-robots ever created. MiniBug weighs 8 mg, and WaterStrider – 55 mg. They can move at a speed of about 6 mm/s, less than real insects, but still considerably faster compared to other micro-robotic technologies. Preliminary tests have shown that the devices can lift over 150 times their weight.

“Micro-robots are small, giving them access to components that many traditional robots cannot reach. In cases like inspections of engines or turbines in factories – there’s no need to disassemble them for inspection with larger robots, we can simply use a smaller robot that fits inside the device without having to disassemble it,” assures Conor Trygstad.

Flying micro-robots could also be successfully used for artificial pollination, which is crucial given that pollinating insect populations may someday become extinct. EU data shows that the number of wild pollinating insects is rapidly declining due to human activity. More than 40% of insect species, including bees, are threatened with extinction. In 2020, the World Economic Forum identified the loss of biodiversity as one of the top five long-term global threats.

Another potential use of micro-robots is environmental monitoring with the WaterStrider robot.

“This robot could swim through areas such as river deltas or other vulnerable ecosystems and perform specific environmental conservation tasks or carry out geographical mapping,” points out the scientist.

One of the most crucial fields in which robotics is being developed, both on a micro and macro scale, is medicine. Hopes rest on micro-robots for the direct delivery of drugs to the site of the disease, significantly reducing or almost eliminating systemic effects of active substances. This is particularly important in the case of heavy treatment regimes, such as cancer therapies. Micro-robotics also offers the possibility of non-invasive surgical interventions.

“In search and rescue operations, robots could get under rubble to locate trapped people and hasten their rescue,” add Trygstad.

However, the possibility of equipping insect-sized robots with sound or image recording equipment, needed explicitly for rescue missions, raises concerns. It’s about the potential for spying on people in a virtually unnoticeable but highly effective manner, without the need for eavesdropping devices.

“Micro-robots do not pose any additional privacy threat beyond the current threats. Camera and microphone-based technologies are presently highly developed and can be placed in various locations. I do not believe micro-robots pose any additional threat,” assures the expert.

The greatest challenge faced by scientists developing micro-robot technology is their internal power supply. The energy density of currently available batteries is insufficient compared to the needs.

According to Future Market Insights, the global micro-robot market generated 27 billion dollars in revenue in 2022. The following year, this figure rose to almost 32 billion dollars. By 2033, the turnover is expected to increase over five times – to over 159 billion dollars.

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