Miniature robots controlled by magnetic fields

A team of scientists at NTU Singapore has developed millimetre-sized robots that can be controlled using magnetic fields to perform highly manoeuvrable and dexterous manipulations. This could pave the way to possible future applications in biomedicine and manufacturing.

The research team created the miniature robots by embedding magnetic microparticles into biocompatible polymers – non-toxic materials that are harmless to humans. The robots are ‘programmed’ to execute their desired functionalities when magnetic fields are applied.

The made-in-NTU robots improve on many existing small-scale robots by optimizing their ability to move in six degrees-of-freedom (DoF) – that is, translational movement along the three spatial axes, and rotational movement about those three axes, commonly known as roll, pitch and yaw angles.

While researchers have previously created six DoF miniature robots, the new NTU miniature robots can rotate 43 times faster than them in the critical sixth DoF when their orientation is precisely controlled. They can also be made with ‘soft’ materials and thus can replicate important mechanical qualities – one type can ‘swim’ like a jellyfish, and another has a gripping ability that can precisely pick and place miniature objects.

Measuring about the size of a grain of rice, the miniature robots may be used to reach confined and enclosed spaces currently inaccessible to existing robots, making them particularly useful in the field of medicine, for example, in surgical procedures for ‘difficult-to-reach’ vital organs such as the brain. They may also one day be used in ‘micro factories’ that build microscale devices.

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