Size doesn’t matter if you work together as a team. No, that’s not advice from a sex columnist. It’s the philosophy of robot designers who developed microbots patterned after ants and programmed six of them to work together to pull a full-sized car.
The robots are called microTugs and they’re the creations of scientists at Stanford University’s Biomimetics and Dexterous Manipulation Laboratory who have been working for some time on tiny-yet-strong robots. In 2015, they unveiled one weighing less than half an ounce that can pull up to 52 pounds. Another one weighing 9 grams uses its super-strength plus gecko-like sticky feet to pull a 2-pound object up a wall.
The microTugs are different than other microbots designed by the lab in that their strength lies in cooperation rather than individual efforts. David Christensen, graduate student and author of a paper on their work published in IEEE Robotics and Automation and scheduled to be presented at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Stockholm in May, describes it.
The expected performance is a function of interactions between each robot and the ground (e.g., whether running or walking).
The microTugs use the adhesive foot-power of the gecko robots, whose feet have minute rubber spikes that grip firmly by bending when pressure is applied, thus increasing their surface area and stickiness. When the robot lifts a foot, the pressure is released and the spikes straighten out, ready for the next step.
The researchers observed that ants on a team get greater cooperative strength by using three of their six legs simultaneously. Combining those two ideas, they built the tiny (less than an ounce each) microTugs and demonstrated their team effort by pulling Christensen’s 3,900-pound vehicle.
To put this effort in perspective, it’s the equivalent of six human beings pulling the entire Eiffel Tower and three Statues of Liberty. On the practical side, Christensen sees microTugs crawling into small spaces and working together to accomplish big rescue efforts.
Strength through collective effort … why does that sound familiar?