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Electronic Brains are Making Robots Walk on Their Own!

Electronic brains allow microscopic robots to walk freely without any form of external control

We have noticed many tiny robots before, but never like this. Researchers from Cornell have developed the first microscopic robots that operate without any form of external control. These smart microrobots (nanomachines) contain all the hardware they require on board, including a basic electronic brain. These robots with electronic brains just require a little solar energy, and off they go. They are currently very limited devices, but the designers envision almost unlimited applications.

The research, which was escorted by postdoctoral researcher Michael Reynolds, built on research that was already happening at Cornell. Earlier, Cornell made the world record for the smallest walking robot, but the new version is immeasurable and smarter. Michael Reynolds created electronic brain robots between 100 and 250 micrometers across with an electronic circuit that acts as a control point for the robots and it eliminates the need for an external control mechanism like heat or magnetism, which is essential for other tiny robots. Reynolds mentions those robots are more like marionettes than true robots.

The brain inside these microscopic robots is an uncomplicated complementary metal oxide semiconductor (CMOS) clock circuit. It holds just a thousand transistors, which is nothing compared with the billions that exist in today’s full-scale computer processors. The job of the circuit is to generate phase-shifted square waves that control the walking gait of the robot, which it does automatically when the integrated photovoltaic cells come in contact with light. The team tested three different designs with two, four, and six legs. The fastest among them can walk at a blistering 10 micrometers per second and it is pretty fast given the microscopic scale.

The circuits are 15 micrometers tall, forming the brain and the main body of the robot. They feature 13 layers of photolithography to etch the brain itself, as well as the platinum-based actuators that function as its legs. Reynolds and former postdoctoral researcher Alejandro Cortese designed the first of the CMOS brains several years ago, which was then created by commercial foundry XFAB. The completed robots are about 10,000 times smaller than existing robots with CMOS electronics.

The circuit itself is not the real innovation here. Cornell physics professor Itai Cohen said that lowering the power consumption of the chip was the key to making these robots mobile. The low voltage and current requirements make actuators at this scale feasible, which they have not been in the past. Reynolds has developed smart microbots to be extensible, so other researchers can add sensors or control mechanisms. Eventually, it may be possible to communicate with the robots and issue instructions that will be executed by the integrated circuits. These machines have the potential in the future to manipulate bacteria, trace chemical signatures, and even perform microsurgery in our bodies. Or maybe they will become a science-fictional gray goose that consumes the world. Only time can answer that correctly.