Thayer Builds World's Smallest Untethered Robot

Microbot is controllable and untethered.

In a world where "supersize" has entered the lexicon, there are some things getting smaller, like cell phones and laptops. Dartmouth researchers have contributed to the miniaturizing trend by creating the world's smallest untethered, controllable robot. Their extremely tiny machine is about as wide as a strand of human hair and half the length of the period at the end of this sentence. About 200 of these could march in a line across the top of a plain M&M.

The researchers, led by Bruce Donald, Joan P. and Edward J. Foley Jr. 1933 Professor of Computer Science, reported their creation in a paper that will be presented in October at the 12th International Symposium of Robotics Research in San Francisco, which is sponsored by the International Federation of Robotics Research. A longer, more detailed paper will appear in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Microelectromechanical Systems, a publication of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

"It's tens of times smaller in length, and thousands of times smaller in mass than previous untethered microrobots that are controllable," said Donald. "When we say 'controllable,' we mean you can steer it anywhere on a flat surface, and drive it wherever you want it to go. It doesn't drive on wheels, but crawls like a silicon inchworm, making tens of thousands of 10-nanometer steps every second. It turns by putting a silicon 'foot' out and pivoting like a motorcyclist skidding around a tight turn."

The future applications for micro-electromechanical systems, or MEMS, include ensuring information security, such as assisting with network authentication and authorization; inspecting and making repairs to an integrated circuit; exploring hazardous environments, perhaps after a hazardous chemical explosion; and biotechnology, possibly to manipulate cells or tissues.

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