Inspired by a gecko, one tiny bot can pull objects that are nearly 2,000 times heavier than itself.
Whoever said big things can’t come in small packages has surely never seen these robots. That’s because Stanford University engineers have built miniature bots capable of hauling things that weigh over 100 times more than themselves.
Impressively, the strongest of the bots — which are aptly named MicroTugs — weighs only 12 grams yet is capable of pulling objects that are nearly 2,000 times its weight. While another one, a 9-gram climbing robot, can carry over a kilogram vertically up glass. To put these into perspective, co-creator David Christensen says that is the equivalent of a person dragging a blue whale and climbing up a skyscraper while lugging an elephant, respectively. Even a 20-milligram bot can tote up to 500 milligrams, which is roughly the size of a paper clip.
How can this be, you ask? The robots borrow techniques from inchworms and geckos as they traverse their terrain. Inspired by the gecko, the engineers covered the robots’ feet with tiny rubber spikes that bend when pressure is applied and straighten out when the robot picks its foot back up. The team of researchers also adopted the inchworm’s method of locomotion: while one half of its body moves forward, the other stays in place to support the heavy load being pulled. This allows the bot to climb walls without losing its grip, New Scientist explains.
“This work demonstrates a new type of small robot that can apply orders of magnitude more force than it weighs. This is in stark contrast to previous small robots that have become progressively better at moving and sensing, but lacked the ability to change the world through the application of human-scale loads,” the pair of engineers write.
Just think: A robot bringing your coffee across your desk when out of reach or picking up a pen that was dropped on the floor? That’s not the end-game, though. In the future, the team hopes that machines like these could prove to be useful in factories, on construction sites, and even in emergency scenarios. For instance, one might carry a rope ladder up to a person trapped on a high floor in a burning building.
The mighty bots will be presented next month at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Seattle. Intrigued? Delve deeper into the Stanford engineers’ research and development here, and be sure to watch them in action below!