A View from Christopher Mims
Microrobotics Competition Shows Impressive Feats
The world’s elite microrobots break the world record in the two-millimeter dash and self-assemble like Voltron.
At The Mobile Microrobotics Challenge, which took place mid-May in Anchorage, Alaska and was sponsored by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the world’s best robotics engineers gathered to attempt some of the most impressive feats of micro-manipulation.
“When people come to our competition, they’re demonstrating something that’s publishable within a few months,” says Jason Gorman, organizer of the competition and an engineer in the Intelligent Systems Division of NIST. “We’re interested in pushing the limits of microrobots.”
This year’s lineup included three separate events: the two millimeter dash, a micro-manipulation task in which robots had to push tiny pegs into equally tiny holes, and a “freestyle” event in which the teams were allowed to show off the unique capabilities of their microrobots. The competition was so tiny it was filmed through a microscope. Below are videos of the winners of each event.
The 2 Millimeter Dash
“One question that comes up a lot with this event is, can the robot simply shoot like a bullet?” says Gorman. “The answer is no–they have to stop at a specific location. It demonstrates that they have control over the robot.”
“In macroscale robotics, the peg and hole challenge is a classic problem,” says Gorman. “Teams have to build a microrobot that can do it with pegs that are about 100 micrometers wide–that’s the width of a human hair.”
“There are some practical uses for robots that start small and then aggregate to make bigger robots,” says Gorman. “One is to act as a temporary stent in the human body. The idea is, you inject small robots, guide them to a particular location and form a structure in the body.”
“ETH Zurich, [maker of the robot pictured in this video] is interested in using these robots to do surgery in the eye,” says Gorman. “The idea is that they would inject the microrobot into the eye and look through the pupil so that they can see the robot and perform microsurgery. They have a system of macroscale electromagnets to steer the robot while inside the eye.”
According to Gorman, microrobots technology is progressing so fast that next year’s competition will be significantly more challenging than the this year’s. For example, next year there won’t even be a 2 millimeter dash because that problem is considered solved. “This year was definitely the biggest leap [technologically] we’ve seen,” he adds.