Researchers build 'flying' micro-robot

The robot, which weighs about three-hundredths of an ounce, is manipulated by magnetic fields and has the potential for use in clean rooms or hazardous environments.

A flying micro-robot has been developed by researchers at the University of Waterloo in Ontario.

A research team, led by Professor Mir Behrad Khamesee, manipulates magnetic fields to levitate and move around three axes a robot weighing about three-hundredths of an ounce.

According to a paper shared with ZDNet UK--"MechMN: Design and Implementation of a Micromanipulation System using a Magnetically Levitated MEMS Robot"--this is accomplished with an array of electromagnets that creates a three-dimensional parabolic magnetic field.

The University of Waterloo's hovering micro-robot snaps its pincers shut. University of Waterloo

The robot is magnetized itself and sits on top of the parabola, supported by the interaction between its own magnetic field and that created by the electromagnets. Altering the flow of current in the electromagnet distorts the field and moves the robot, Khamesee said via e-mail Thursday.

"We develop a focal point of a magnetic field in space, which the micro-robot hangs on," Khamesee said. "By changing the location of the focal point (through current control in several coils), the micro-robot is consequently moved."

The micro-robot has pincers that can be opened by heating them with a laser. When the laser is turned off, the pincers cool and close. Lasers are also used to detect the position of the robot, Khamesee said. "There are three sets of laser sensors for detecting the position of the microrobot in three-dimensional space. The robot is an obstacle for the laser beam in space, and its position can be read."

The robot is monitored by the laser sensors and a camera, which create a feedback loop to a computer. When the robot grasps an object, the magnetic field is automatically adjusted so the robot can maintain its position while supporting the weight of the object.

Khamesee said that the micro-robot could be used in clean rooms or hazardous environments.

"Since there is no wiring, and the robot freely floats in air, it can operate in an enclosed chamber while the whole setup is outside," Khamesee said. "It can work in hazardous environments, toxic chambers, and it can be used to conduct bio-hazardous experiments. Also, since there is no mechanical linkage, it has a dust-free operation, suitable for clean room applications."

The research team, which includes Khamesee and graduate students Caglar Elbuken and Mustafa Yavuz, submitted the paper last fall to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers for possible publication.

Tom Espiner of ZDNet UK reported from London.

 

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