“Swarm” microbots display versatile movements


Researchers from Cornell University College of Engineering, the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems, and Shanghai Jiao Tong University have developed collectives of microrobots that can rapidly and robustly reconfigure their swarm behavior. Floating on the surface of the water, the versatile microrobotic disks can move in circles, cluster into a clump, spread out like gas, or form a straight line like beads on a string.

Each robot is slightly larger than the width of a hair. They are 3D printed using a polymer and then coated with a thin top layer of cobalt. Thanks to the metal, the microrobots become miniature magnets. Meanwhile, coils of wire that create a magnetic field when electricity passes through them surround the facility. The magnetic field allows the particles to be precisely directed around a centimeter wide pool of water. Researchers can direct the robots through complicated mazes and they can have them manipulate objects, both directly and by generating a flow in their environment.

The research has been published in Nature Communication on April 26 and co-authors include Kirstin Petersen, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Cornell, and graduate student Steven Ceron, both of Embodied Collective Intelligence Lab.

“This work is particularly exciting because it shows how we can leverage robot-robot and robot-environment interactions to achieve complex global behaviors with large numbers of very simple agents,” Petersen said. “This approach may prove fundamental for future applications in biomedicine and micro-scale environmental remediation.”

A longer version of this article appears on the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems website with a video.

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