In a newly released video a team of tiny microbots can be seen pulling a car that weighs in at 3,900 pounds.
The extraordinary feat of teamwork is attributed to the success of biomimicry by a team of researchers at Stanford University’s Biomimetics and Dexterous Manipulation Laboratory. The scientists developed tiny robots known as microTug or uTug robots, which work in the same way as ants but are about the same size as a cockroach.
Tiny robots work in unison to generate impressive force
Each microbot weighs around 0.2 pounds and has sticky feet inspired by geckos. As a result it can pull loads over 100 times its own weight and climb walls. Previous experiments showed the robots walking on walls, but the latest feat was achieved after combining the strength of a team of the microbots.
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David Christensen, one member of the team behind the microbots, says that the feat is the functional equivalent of six people moving the Eiffel Tower and three Statues of Liberty.
If you’ve ever watched ants carry huge objects you may have wondered how such a tiny insect is capable of doing so. The team took their inspiration from ants and took a counterintuitive approach.
Microbots work much in the same way as ants
Rather than focusing on big forces and powerful blows, the team worked to synchronize tiny forces in a smooth application. While the microbots may move slowly, they work in unison and it makes them far stronger.
Ants generate great cooperative force by moving three of their six legs simultaneously, as do the microbots. Scientists found that the solution to being able to pull the car was a long, slow, steady gait.
“By considering the dynamics of the team, not just the individual, we are able to build a team of our ‘microTug’ robots that, like ants, are superstrong individually, but then also work together as a team,” Christensen tells the New York Times.
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As you will see in the video, the car doesn’t move fast but the microbots are still capable of getting it from A to B. The video is playing at 20 times normal speed.A similar group of robots known as the Autonomous Multi-Robot System for Vehicle Extraction and Transportation or AVERT, has also demonstrated its ability to pull a 2 ton car.
Christensen, graduate student Srinivasan Suresh, researcher Katie Hahm and professor of mechanical engineering Mark Cutkosky published a paper named “Let’s All Pull Together: Principles for Sharing Large Loads in Microrobot Teams,” on the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers website a month ago.
The research will be presented at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Stockholm in May. Advances in robots are coming thick and fast, from Boston Dynamics’ Atlas humanoid to the company’s Spot canine robot.
Boston Dynamics recently released videos of Atlas being abused by researchers, showing resilience in repeatedly picking itself up after being knocked over. Another video shows the Spot robotic dog facing off against a real dog, with the flesh-and-blood canine none too impressed by its first meeting with its robotic equivalent.
Researchers continue to find new applications for robotics technology, and while much of it looks like it will be useful in the future, some are worried that one day we may create robots that are too intelligent for us to control.