Micro-Robots Are Scary Awesome

A team of scientists at SRI international are creating real-life replicators from Star Gate SG1 — micro-robots capable of smart (and scary!) manufacturing. Thousands working in parallel will be able to achieve tasks previously unheard of, in a completely compact and integrated system.

These tiny ant-like robot systems are magnetically controlled and can use tools, move at incredible speeds, and swarm over surfaces. SRI’s vision was “to have an army of ants under your control”. It’s actually been an ongoing project since the 1990’s — but a recent undisclosed chunk of funding from DARPA has helped accelerate the project — giving it a new title of the MicroFactory for Macro Products project.

You have to see the video to believe it. Potential applications for these tiny swarm-bots include precise pick & place manufacturing, micro bio-technology, electronics manufacturing, and even rapid prototyping of high quality parts.

We get shivers just watching them slide around effortlessly on almost any surface.

[Thanks Matthew!]

48 thoughts on “Micro-Robots Are Scary Awesome

  1. Linear 2d motion – seems legit. Rotation – how did they do it? Is it magic?
    This video was just mesmerizing.

    1. It makes sense to me that the robots are actuated internally and acquire energy via the ambient magnetic field put out by the circuit boards beneath them. The means that should someone decide to power these with microwaves, or some other high density energy transmission, they would be used in theoretically any environment.

    2. It’s probably done just by having multiple magnets per ‘robot’. If you can move them with that much precision, it should be fairly simple to move them in a circle around one another, effectively rotating the entire bot.

  2. While quite awesome. A LONG way from replicators.
    All these “robots” are is magnets. The real “robot” is however big their floor is.

    Got to hand it to them though, some ingenious stuff going on here, especially when he tapped the rod to figure out where it was.

    1. That’s what i reacted to too, calling a magnet with some wires glued on a robot is a bit far fetched.

      I would maybe accept “micro robot system” meaning the entire magnetic grid and magnets as one system.

    2. Yeah, the little magnet things are end effectors of the system. Calling them robots is like saying that chopsticks are “a pair of robots working cooperatively”.

      Still damn cool and I look forward to seeing what else they can pull off with these. Especially the bit with the ‘bridge’ between the two work platforms that they could drive down.

  3. Reminds me of Drexler/Kurzweil’s description of the role of nanobots in The Singularity is Near…. only on a macro scale. We’ve got a long way to go if we’re going to hit Kurzweil’s project for mid-2020s!

    Also, I haven’t read up too much (I’m on my phone) but it seems like these guys would be putting to positional errors without some sort of feedback system. Is there one? I think that’d be the clever bit of this system.

    1. Yup, poor old Ray. I have to feel sorry for him, he’s DESPERATE not to die, but 20 or 30 years too old to make it. Shovelling hundreds of pills down his mouth and proselytising as fast as he can!

      Me, born in the late 1970s, might make it. Compare medicine from 40 years ago to now, and from 40 years ago to 80 years ago, when they didn’t even have penicillin. 40 years time when I’m about ready to die, I figure there’ll be stuff to keep me going for another 50 or so. After those 50, other stuff will keep me going another hundred. Etc!

      Course, it’d be more likely if I was rich. Not sure I’d even like to live forever, but when the moment actually comes, nobody seems to feel like dying on any particular day.

      Besides all that though, awesome robots! Imagine a factory that’s just a big one of these, components and materials entering at one end. Or you could even just throw a sackful of parts anywhere on and let the little geniuses figure it out themselves. Actually a factory would best be several floors’ worth of these, stacked on top of each other, a foot or so apart (or far enough to keep the magnetic fields fouling each other). A set of elevators around the edges, or in the middle, could transport stuff between levels.

  4. Isn’t this just a 2D linear motor? Or am I missing something?

    Notice how none of the robot actually rotate in the video.

    1. 2:12 is a clear rotation. At the beginiing of the video there are circular and wavy pathes as well. But, if you notice the path it takes when it makes a rotation at 2:12, I am assuming it’s not actually able to rotate in place, that it has to go over to a portion of the surface that has a curved track underneath?

      1. 1:03 is a rotation in place. If you can move magnets around in 2d, you can do rotation by having more than one magnet per ‘robot’, and moving them tangentially to the center.

      2. i would imagine a 4 layer pcb could do that as well, maybe 2 diagonal layers 2 linear layers, and some clever coding to pwm between the diagonal and linear traces might make it appear like a smooth rotation. The point was to make something really small move and do stuff but what if it was scaled up 2x…

  5. I don’t know why, but every time I see these kinds of micro robots the only thing I can imagine them doing is swarming over someone, getting into his body through various orifices, and tearing him apart from the inside out.

    Still, I suppose they have other purposes. (c:

    1. I don’t know what you expect if you walk around magnetic robotics labs with conductive paths running into all your orifices and to vital organs.

  6. I think the rotation is happening due to another layer in the circuit board substrate generating a magnetic field that is perpendicular to the top layer. These sorts of substrates can have many layers…… Refer to the patents for more info.

  7. All I can see is the space-suit full of Watchmakers from “A Mote In Gods Eye”
    Fast little robots scare me…. DARPA scares me more…

    Was never a big fan of tinfoil hats, until my roomate (Director of The Advanced Imaging Laboratory at a major medical university) came home all excited because they were in the running for a DARPA grant to fund research into “mapping the narrative comprehension network with their new 3Tesla MRI.

    A tinfoil hat makes an excellent faraday cage….

  8. this is super cool! i would love to see a high speed PnP machine with this kind of setup… that doesnt cost $$$.

  9. The video leads one on to think they are much more impressive than they are.
    There is no onboard anything, they are magnets being moved around on pads. There is… a video from, I think a german fellow, moving magnets across some protoboard using the same method. it has potential, but only on its specially designed surfaces. I cant find the video, there are too many on youtube.
    a) take veroboard with parallel traces
    b) shunt 1 side of all the traces
    c) put scotch tape over it all
    d) put on 3 small rare earth magnets
    e) with a constant current source set to 5A, strobe the traces,
    the magnets will follow the current carrying traces.

  10. They’re swarming! They’re swarming! As the Precious Roy shows, these might be DIYable. So each unit doesn’t need any power, mechanics or even control. All that’s done by the environment.

  11. I’d like to see these little critters running around as they build themselves more substrate work surface to move on out of a supply of suitable materials. Then you could have them start with a small initial work surface and grow it to the size needed for whatever project they were working on. Could also make it able to be pulled apart again, so they could build 3d scaffolds to move around on for more exotic constructions, then strip them afterwards leaving just the construct.

    1. or juts be their own conveyor belt, having plates of substrate with little plug and play atachements, and they could pick them up, move them across, attach little solar panels and clear the work in front of them. is there a way to do this more remotely? say have a wheeled vehicle as the bot, free spinning, and the substrate control it from a few inches above?

  12. Reason 5001 to distrust the government. Reason 5003. Reason 582… Reason 735… Reason 999.Reason 10Reason2633ReasoReasonReRRRR……

    *Public Enemy terminated*

  13. I wonder if the bots could use electromagnets or electropermanent magnets and be powered externally. They could orientate themselves to an external field on command and switch to a non magnetic state afterwards. Could use a single field to control many bots seperately.

  14. I wonder how or even if this could be used to augment 3D printers and laser engraver/cutters. It could make for some interesting work if a small swarm had prisms and mirrors to redirect the laser under and around the object(s) in the work area.

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