One of my favourite plausible science fictional tropes is that of tiny robotic insects. The latest step towards their instantiation has been taken by researchers in Sweden, Spain, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland as they put forward their conception of how swarms of mass-produced robotic fleas could be used for surveillance, cleaning, and medical applications:
The technique involves integrating an entire robot – with communication, locomotion, energy storage, and electronics – in different modules on a single circuit board.
In the past, the single-chip robot concept has presented significant limitations in design and manufacturing. However, instead of using solder to mount electrical components on a printed circuit board as in the conventional method, the researchers use conductive adhesive to attach the components to a double-sided flexible printed circuit board using surface mount technology.
The circuit board is then folded to create a three-dimensional robot.
I can imagine that once this sort of technology matures it will herald a profound change for society. An Orwellian Panopticon where everyone and everything is traced and followed and tracked will become a practicable possibility. Privacy will become one of the most valuable commodities on the planet, with the richest and most powerful people cowering in enclaves sterilized against micro-invaders.
: In that I enjoy them as part of a story and am not entirely ambivalent to their actuality.
[from Physorg][image from Physorg]
Further developments in the field of microtechnology with the development by the University of Waterloo of a magnetically-levitating microbot with laser-controlled manipulators:
The micro-robot has pincers that can be opened by heating them with a laser. When the laser is turned off, the pincers cool and close.
“Since there is no wiring, and the robot freely floats in air, it can operate in an enclosed chamber while the whole setup is outside,” Khamesee said. “It can work in hazardous environments, toxic chambers, and it can be used to conduct bio-hazardous experiments. Also, since there is no mechanical linkage, it has a dust-free operation, suitable for clean room applications.”
This is starting to approach some of the microbot widgetry described in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash.
[via Technovelgy][image and article from cnet]
Scientists at John Hopkins University, Maryland have developed minute hands that can grasp tiny pieces of tissue when exposed to particular chemicals:
The researchers describe development of tiny metallic microgrippers shaped like a hand that work without electricity. The grippers are about 0.03 inches wide when open — smaller than the diameter of a grain of sand and made from a gold-coated nickel “palm” joined by six pointy metallic “fingers.”
The addition of certain chemicals triggers the hands to open or close. In laboratory studies, the scientists demonstrated that the grippers could grasp and release tiny pipes and glass beads and transport these objects to distant locations with the aid of a magnet, showcasing their potential for pick-and-place operations that are ubiquitous in manufacturing, they say.
The field is apparently called Micro-Chemo-Mechanical-Systems (MCMS) and along with Micro-Electro-Mechanical-Systems (MEMS) is set to have a major impact over the next several decades, particularly in the realm of health and medicine:
…the untethered grippers devised by Gracias’ team contain gold-plated nickel, allowing them to be steered by magnets outside the body. “With this method, we were able to remotely move the microgrippers a relatively long distance over tissue without getting stuck, he said. “Additionally, the microgrippers are triggered to close and extricate cells from tissue when exposed to certain biochemicals or biologically relevant temperatures.”
[from Physorg][image from the Physorg article][also check out the paper for more technical details]
Photo Credit: Mike Libby, Insect Lab
The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is funding research that would embed insects with microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) that would then in turn allow them to be controlled remotely. The program, dubbed “Hybrid-Insect MEMS” or ‘”HI-MEMS,” is funding three research groups at the University of Michigan, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Boyce Thompson Institute.
The final milestone [of the project] will be flying a cyborg insect to within five meters of a specific target located some one hundred meters away using remote control or a global positioning system (GPS). If HI-MEMS passes this test successfully, then DARPA will probably begin breeding in earnest. Insect swarms with various sorts of different embedded MEMS sensors–video cameras, audio microphones, chemical sniffers and more–could then penetrate enemy territory in swarms to perform reconnaissance missions impossible or too dangerous for soldiers.