This Four Millimeter Long Millirobot Can Walk, Crawl and Roll Through Difficult Terrain

Small-Scale Soft-Bodied Multimodal LocomotionThe millirobot now introduced by the Max Planck researchers in Stuttgart moves over land and water. Jellyfish and caterpillars are just two of the natural role models that inspired the scientists. © MPI for Intelligent Systems

Tiny robots need not fear obstacle courses in the future: Scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems in Stuttgart have developed a minuscule, flexible robot that can master a variety of forms of movement. Its magnetic drive allows it to walk, crawl and roll through difficult terrain. Moreover, it can transport small loads and swim on and in liquids. In future, tiny robots moving in this way could transport medication specifically to where it is needed.

The millirobots are characterized by their manoeuvrability. The tiny vehicle, a strip of elastic silicon just four millimeters long, can be used in a variety of locomotion modes, allowing the millirobot to manoeuvre even through a complex environment. Previous microrobots, on the other hand, can only manoeuvre to a limited extent and meet their match especially in difficult terrain.

The researchers from the Stuttgart-based Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems found inspiration for the development of the manoeuvrability talent in nature: “When we build robots, we look at the mechanics of the movement of soft-bodied biological organisms, for example, and are inspired by them”, says Metin Sitti, Director of the Physical Intelligence Department. “With our millirobot, the result is a mix of several soft creatures such as beetle larvae and caterpillars. However, a spermatozoid and a jellyfish also served as models.”

Researchers Develop Small-Scale Soft-Bodied Multimodal Locomotion

Through an obstacle course with ease: The millirobot walks, crawls, swims, climbs a step and jumps through a complex environment. © MPI for Intelligent Systems

Initial tests in a dummy stomach and on chicken meat tissue

The robot is able to perform the different movements because the scientists have embedded magnetic microparticles in its soft, elastic silicone rubber body, resulting in a precisely defined magnetization profile. This allows the researchers to operate and control it using an external magnetic field. By varying the strength and direction of the magnetic field, they deform the rubber strip in different ways. This allows the millirobot to complete an obstacle course similar to what would be encountered in the human body: it can walk or roll across surfaces, jump across obstacles, crawl through narrow tubes and swim on or in liquids. In addition, it can grasp objects, transport them and deposit them at defined locations.

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