Researchers at Cornell University have developed microrobots smaller than the size of an ant’s head—capable of functioning autonomously thanks to their embedded ‘brains’, presenting an exciting array of possibilities for medical application.
For generations, microrobots have faced a key flaw involving their movement—they couldn’t move without wires or targeted laser beams transmitting energy for locomotion.
The newest development in microrobotics, however, changes things. Microrobots, as we know them, are breaking free from their metaphorical chains.
Fully autonomous microrobots are now a reality—with no strings attached, according to Professor of Physics at Cornell University, Itai Cohen.
“Before, we literally had to manipulate these ‘strings’ in order to get any kind of response from the robot,” Cohen explains.
“But now that we have these brains on board, it’s like taking the strings off the marionette. It’s like when Pinocchio gains consciousness.”
The untethered microdevices, described in the scientific journal Science Robotics, are about 100-250 micrometres in size, powered entirely by light and are capable of moving at speeds up to ten micrometres per second—making them as fast as flavobacterium—a class of gram-negative bacteria.
What makes the robots truly remarkable is the presence of onboard CMOS (complementary metal oxide semiconductor) circuits that make the micro-scale devices intelligent and responsive. According to Cohen, the circuits impart the microrobots the ability to communicate and respond to instructions.
“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,” commented Cohen.
“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 suss out what’s happening.'”
Researchers at Cornell are optimistic about the potential applications of their microscopic devices in medicine—ranging from targeted drug delivery and chemical detection to microsurgery and micro-atherectomy (the process of clearing plaque from arteries).
The development of micro-scale, remotely controllable devices is a revolutionary advance in medical science. Not only the microdevices can be deployed to sense bio-signals and repair tissue damage, but they can also be repurposed to selectively destroy unwanted cells and perform procedures in areas tricky to reach through surgery.
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