Little Bots Do The Darndest Things

One of my fondest memories of hiking the Costa Rican rainforest are the “leaf cutter ants.”  These minuscule inspects are able lift objects 100x times their weight.  The line of worker ants goes on for tens of yards across the jungle floor.  This week roboticists at Stanford University demonstrated the new leaf cutter ant of robots (see video below).

These miniature robots, known as MicroTugs, can pull up to 2,000 times their own weight, and rely on sticky foot pads that give them immense grip.  While the current models are so small they weigh only 9 g (equivalent to one third of an ounce), 12 g and a tiny 20 mg, development is taking place to enable the creation of larger robots that can carry huge weights. With the same proportionate strength, a robot weighing the same as an average human could pull along a blue whale.


Industries such as manufacturing and distribution could benefit, as robots pull giant loads around a warehouse and place them wherever needed. Construction sites could have tons of bricks and other items carried by bots. For example, a robot weighing in at only 12g yanks along an astonishing 24kg, some two thousand times its own weight.

There is obvious military potential as armies could rely on munitions being taken wherever needed. Likewise, emergency services could use robots to carry a heavy item such as a ladder into a dangerous situation to help rescue someone.  One of the cleverest things about the robots is that with their sticky feet they can even walk directly up a glass wall.

In a demonstration this week, the tiny 20 mg robot was able to pull along 500 mg, and the slightly larger 9 g (one-third ounce) robot carried over a kilogram (2.2 pounds) vertically up a glass surface. Meanwhile, the 12g robot was able to pull along over 24 kilograms.

David Christensen, one of the Stanford Ph.D. students on the project, said the researchers would next look at how to make a number of the robots work together to carry a heavier items, while also “scaling the technology up to larger bots” so they are able to carry very heavy goods.

The project, which was initially exhibited with fellow Ph.D. student Elliot Hawkes’ thesis at the TED conference in Vancouver earlier this year, relies on “controllable adhesive technology” that mimics some of the techniques used by geckos and ants to grip a surface. Rather like geckos, which use microscopic hairlike features on their toes to connect to a surface, MicroTug robots have miniature rubber spikes that cling to a service yet can be easily detached to lift the foot again.

Once again this proves that geckos are not just to save you 15% or more on your car insurance.

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