Engineers at the University of California Los Angeles have developed “meta-bots,” which are fingernail sized robots that can move, sense, and navigate their environment. Strikingly, the robots are essentially ready for use when they emerge from the 3D printer, and consist of piezoelectric actuators that can respond to or generate electricity. The robots consist of an intricate structure of piezoelectric components that allow them to rapidly flex and rotate. The researchers hope that the technology will lead to a variety of medical robotics, such as self-steering endoscopes or drug delivery robots that can navigate to specific regions in the body.  

The potential for miniature robots in the medical field is enormous, from tiny surgical robots to drug delivery bots and everything in between. While it seems that every other week someone develops another tiny robot with medical potential, few robots can get to work after just one 3D printing session. Typically, most small robots (or large robots for that matter) require a series of complex manufacturing steps to assemble various tiny components. This is not just fiddly, but greatly increases the complexity and size of the resulting device and the expense involved.

This latest technology encompasses a one-step manufacturing process, and it all occurs within the 3D printer. “We envision that this design and printing methodology of smart robotic materials will help realize a class of autonomous materials that could replace the current complex assembly process for making a robot,” said Xiaoyu Zheng, one of the creators of the new bots. “With complex motions, multiple modes of sensing and programmable decision-making abilities all tightly integrated, it’s similar to a biological system with the nerves, bones and tendons working in tandem to execute controlled motions.”

After printing, all that is required to get the meta-bots working is to insert a small battery. The printed structure includes sensory components, actuators, and structural components. Strikingly, and what makes them true robots, the devices can make their own decisions based on sensor input while navigating a physical environment.

“With the two-way piezoelectric effect, the robotic materials can also self-sense their contortions, detect obstacles via echoes and ultrasound emissions, as well as respond to external stimuli through a feedback control loop that determines how the robots move, how fast they move and toward which target they move,” said Huachen Cui, another researcher involved in the study.

Here’s a UCLA video showing off the meta-bots:

Study in Science: Design and printing of proprioceptive three-dimensional architected robotic metamaterials


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