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By John Allen
Since the first microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) were introduced in the 1990s, microrobotics has been a field of science quietly moving forward with little mainstream media attention. The benefits are excitingly varied. Micro-robots have aided the development of manufacturing advances, new surgical procedures, computer processing and space exploration.
Medical microbots have been a dream for many years but microsurgery has become standard practise for complex operations. In the 2015 novel ‘A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet’, every character has ‘immubots’ swarming around their bodies, ready and able to repair damaged cells or eliminate infectious diseases. The book is fiction but real life medical robotics with a similar application are already in the proof-of-concept stage.
Dr Kang Liang from the University of New South Wales announced the next wave of micro-meter sized submarines in March 2019. These programmable ‘subs’ are small enough to enter capillaries in the human body and either make repairs to damaged tissue or attack dangerous foreign bacteria or diseases including cancer. Dr Liang’s team have designed a micro-sized motor able to travel and navigate in a 3-dimensional environment eliminating the need for direct human control. The goal is to be able to package the microbots in pill form. Patients requiring treatment, simply have to swallow the pills and let the micro-subs go to work.
Dr Liang’s research is by no means alone with researchers from countries including Switzerland, Germany and the USA all looking to nature for their designs. All microorganisms that move under their own power propel themselves using flagella. Researchers have designed microswimmer robots that mimic the non-reciprocating movement of flagella allowing the robots to move in 3-dimensions. Now the only constraints are in designing robots that can move through the body’s many rough, sticky surfaces and air pockets like those found in the gastrointestinal tract. Dr Liang and others remain confident that the remaining challenges will be overcome.
Disaster Relief and Rescue
From bringing justice to victims of crime all the way through to aiding search and rescue operations, 3D printing has many useful applications. Now the technology to print miniature 3D robots is within reach. Scientists and engineers from Harvard University’s Wyss Institute, the Paulson School of Engineering & Applied Sciences and Draper, an advanced technology solutions provider, are using additive manufacturing to create small climbing robots. One centimeter in size and capable of jumping up and climbing walls, these microbots could reach areas that traditional search and rescue teams cannot. The robots could transmit data including location, conditions and more back to the operators, aiding rescue efforts. The microbots could also be used in entering other hazardous environments including irradiated land or areas destroyed by natural disaster.
The UK has one of the highest number of road excavations in the world costing approximately $8 billion a year. A consortium of scientists led by Professor Kirill Horoshenkov of the University of Sheffield received a grant of $9.2 million from the UK government to develop and build microbots capable of carrying out repairs that will reduce excavations. Most UK road repairs are caused by engineers requiring access to fix leaky pipes or faulty electrical cables underneath the streets. Horoshenkov’s microbots could negate those costs by navigating underground using sonar to examine the condition of damaged infrastructure. Worker bots would then be deployed to carry out repairs using cement and adhesives. A potential saving of $6.4 billion to the UK economy is anticipated.
With surveillance technology already present in smart devices, microbots promise to bring even more advances. Drones and satellites are in abundance, but microbots could go even further. Microbots could be used to spy on criminals or terrorists enabling police and security services to sabotage activities and prevent attacks. The law enforcement benefits are evident, though it would be remiss not to point out the potential abuse of technology. Microbots could equally be used in warfare, attacking enemy installations and even the enemy itself on a biological scale.
NASA first explored the possibility of microbots in space nearly 30 years ago. In 2006, the New Scientist reported that spherical microbots would be used to help explore Mars. Financial constraint has slowed R&D but it has not halted it. With everything from solar sails incorporating nanotechnology to nano and microbots being able to repair damage to a spacecraft or spacesuit, research continues with some research in the proof-of-concept stage.
Microbots are here with the benefits of early generations already being enjoyed by consumer markets. The potential benefits remain fixed in the minds of scientists, engineers and governments worldwide as research and development continues.
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