Mini robot on track

Researchers from the US Department of Energy’s Sandia National Laboratories are developing what they believe is the world’s smallest untethered robot.

The diminutive device measures a 1/4 cubic inch and weighs in at less than an ounce.

Powered by three watch batteries, it rides on track wheels and consists of an 8K ROM processor, temperature sensor, and two motors that drive the wheels. Modifications being considered include the addition of a miniature camera, microphone, communication device, and chemical micro-sensor.

‘This could be the robot of the future,’ said Ed Heller, a researcher on the project. ‘It may eventually be capable of performing difficult tasks that are done with much larger robots today — such as locating and disabling land mines or detecting chemical and biological weapons.’

Heller said it could, for example, scramble through pipes or manoeuvre around buildings looking for chemical plumes or human movement.

The Sandia team anticipate the robots working together in large numbers, relaying information to a manned station and communicating with each other. The miniature robots will also be able to go into locations too small for their larger relatives.

The mini-robot has already manoeuvred its way through a field of dimes and nickels and travels at about 20 inches a minute.

The newest robot miniaturisation research supports Laboratories Directed Research and Development (LDRD) work started in Sandia’s Intelligent Systems Sensors & Controls Department. In 1996 the department unveiled a Mini Autonomous Robot Vehicle (MARV), a one-cubic-inch robot fitted with all the necessary power, sensors, computers, and controls on board.

‘Previous small robots consisted of packaged electronic parts that were more bulky and took up valuable space. By eliminating the packaging and using electronic components in die form, we reduced the size of the robots electronics considerably,’ said Heller. ‘This was a first major step.’

Doug Adkins, who developed the mechanical design for the new mini-robot, explained that the researchers further reduced the size of the robot by using stereolithography.

Over the next few years, with additional help from other Sandia groups, Heller and Adkins expect to add to the mini-robots either infrared or radio wireless two-way communication capability, as well as miniature video cameras, microphones, and chemical micro-sensors.