Microscopic robots walk autonomously using simple ‘brains’

It has long been possible to make extremely small robots, but they usually require some sort of direct external control just to function. However, Cornell scientists may have solved this problem at a fundamental level. They have developed microrobots (no more than 250 micrometers in diameter) with simple electronic “brains” that allow them to walk autonomously. Two- and six-legged robots move with relative ease, while a four-legged “dogbot” changes speed when an operator sends laser pulses.

The trick was to build a complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor (or CMOS, as computer enthusiasts call it) clock circuit whose signal generates out-of-phase square-wave frequencies that determine the gait of the robot’s platinum-based legs. Photovoltaic controls both the legs and the circuit. The design is far from complex, with just 1,000 transistors (a GeForce RTX 4090 has 76.3 billion), and it’s still large enough to effectively serve as the robot’s body. But that is also an achievement – ​​the extraordinarily low power requirement saved Cornell from using a relatively gigantic photovoltaic system.

These inventions are a far cry from the more sophisticated large autonomous robots you see today. You can move forward, but not much more. However, the researchers see this as just the beginning. They believe that future micro-robots could be crucial for healthcare, where they could perform internal surgeries and clean your arteries. Elsewhere, they could track down chemicals and eliminate pollutants. Such bots are probably years away, but this project suggests they are technically possible.

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Russell Falcon

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