It seems we see lots of incredible headlines like this one. Today’s technology never ceases to amaze us. We have all heard the old saying that size isn’t everything, but you have to wonder if they were referring to robots when they said that.
Incredible Little Robots
The precision and quickness of these little machines is the reason they are hard at work performing tiny sensitive pick-and-place functions in thousands of factories, and also they are used to control the heads of 3D printers. Now Harvard scientists have discovered that when they are scaled down to millimeter sizes, it allows them to move even faster and become more precise. This has opened all kinds of new applications for them which include anything from microsurgery to handling tiny objects such as circuit board elements or perhaps even living cells.
Most of us have probably seen industrial robots, but these delta robots contains three (3) arms that are controlled individually while supporting a platform. There are various combinations of movements that can drive the platform in three different directions, and an assortment of tools is able to be attached to the platform.
The big engineering benefit regarding this design is that all its motors are located in the base of the unit, rather than at the joints like most typical robotic arms. This drastically reduces the mechanical complexity, but more importantly, it reduces the arm weight. All these factors allow the unit to move and accelerate with more precision and faster as well.
Actually, scientists have long known from the physics of these tiny robots that smaller versions of them would yield bigger advantages. The problem has been the struggle to build them at these small scales.
In a report that was recently published in the journal Science Robotics, these researchers talk about the way they were inspired by origami in the approach to the micro-fabrication used. This was because of the process depends upon the folding of flat sheets of a composite material to build a robot that measures only 15 millimeters by 15 millimeters by 20 millimeters.
The robot was called the “milliDelta” and it features joints that depend upon a flexible polymer core in order to bend—a more simplified version of these more complex joints are found in larger scale delta robots. The unit is driven by three (3) piezoelectric actuators, which flex whenever voltages are applied, and is able to perform movements at frequencies that are 15-20 times higher than normal delta robots.
One possible task for the tiny device is the cancelling of the hand tremors by surgeons while carrying out delicate microsurgery operations, such as those on the retina of the eye. Scientists investigated this particular application in their report. They had volunteers hold a toothpick and recorded the movements of the tip as they mapped natural hand tremors. They then fed the data into the milliDelta, which matched the movements and cancelled out the tremors.
The researchers reported that when they added the robot to the ends of surgical tools, it was able to stabilize scalpels or needles through the optimization of the robot design. For starters, the base was redesigned in order for the fitting of surgical tools, and then sensors were added to the robot to let it measure tremors.
Another potential application for these devices is the placing of components upon circuit boards at extremely high speeds. This is a game changer for the electronics industry. The scientists also believe that it can be used for the manipulation of living cells for medical research.