Archimedes pointed out that with a lever he could move the world.
He most likely would have been surprised to learn that a team of six microrobots, weighing just 3.5 ounces in total, could pull a car weighing 3,900 pounds.
A group of researchers at the Biomimetics and Dexterous Manipulation Laboratory at Stanford University has been exploring the limits of friction in the design of tiny robots that have the ability to pull thousands of times their weight, wander like gecko lizards on vertical surfaces or mimic bats.
Now they have pushed biomimicry in a new direction. They have taken their inspiration from tiny ants that work as teams to move massive objects. In this case, they are not just taking ideas from nature — the movie “Big Hero 6” made a great deal of what swarms of microrobots could do, including tossing cars.
The researchers’ approach is counterintuitive. Rather than striking powerful blows like a football player making a tackle or a jackhammer, they have focused on synchronizing the smooth application of very tiny forces. The microrobots work in concert, if slowly.
The researchers observed that the ants get great cooperative force by each using three of their six legs simultaneously.
“By considering the dynamics of the team, not just the individual, we are able to build a team of our ‘microTug’ robots that, like ants, are superstrong individually, but then also work together as a team,” said David Christensen, a graduate student who is one of the authors of a research paper describing the feat. The paper will be presented this May at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Stockholm.
Their new demonstration is the functional equivalent of a team of six humans moving a weight equivalent to that of an Eiffel Tower and three Statues of Liberty, Mr. Christensen said. The car is the one he uses for commuting to campus. Part of the magic is the use of a special adhesive that was inspired by gecko toes.
Last month, Mr. Christensen and Srinivasan Suresh, another graduate student, the researcher Katie Hahm and the mechanical engineering professor Mark Cutkosky published “Let’s All Pull Together: Principles for Sharing Large Loads in Microrobot Teams.”
In an accompanying video, they show that the microrobots, when they are carefully synchronized, can do astounding things.
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