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Robotics Hardware Technology

Swarms of Solar-Powered Microbots On the Way 119

Posted by ScuttleMonkey
from the time-to-upgrade-the-fly-swatter dept.
Mike writes to tell us that Inhabitat has an interesting article, complete with some pretty pictures, about a new solar-powered swarm robot that could be used to collect data and aid in surveillance. "These mini-robots are quite revolutionary, considering that they contain all that's necessary to collect data and relay it back using one single circuit board. In the past single-chip robots have presented significant design and manufacturing challenges due in part to the use of solder as an adhesive. These new microbots use conductive adhesive to attach the components to a double-sided flexible printed circuit board using surface mount technology. The circuit is then folded into thirds and wrapped around the ASIC (application-specific integrated circuit). On top, a solar cell generates power for the robot and delivers 3.6 V to the unit, which is enough for it to walk. Locomotion is achieved via three vibrating legs, while a fourth horizontal vibrating leg is used as a touch sensor."
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Swarms of Solar Powered Microbots On the Way

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  • solar cell generates power for the robot and delivers 3.6 V to the unit, which is enough for it to walk

    ... at night, when it's cloudy or indoors

    So that rules out a great deal of the times and places where people are. What exactly are the users of these things expecting to spy on?

    • Re:apart from ... (Score:4, Interesting)

      by Architect_sasyr (938685) on Tuesday September 01, 2009 @06:32AM (#29271987)
      I have a solar calculator that works just fine under lights at night (with the dead battery removed). Why couldn't something this small draw enough power from overhead fluro's?
    • Re: (Score:1, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Crichton had a novel about this back in '02. Prey [wikipedia.org]

      Like all his books, interesting but not necessarily plausible.

      • by umghhh (965931)
        I wonder if Crichton read "The Invincible" [wikipedia.org] before he wrote "Prey".
      • by BigGerman (541312)
        Prey was about how stupid middle management is ;-)
      • Crichton had a novel about this back in '02. Prey [wikipedia.org]

        Like all his books, interesting but not necessarily plausible.

        I think his best was The Andromeda Strain, by far. I remember my first time reading it (I was probably around 10 or 11 at the time) wondering whether there was some factual basis for it. It was written in such a documentary way that at times it was hard to tell if it was one of those "based on a true story" kinds of things (at least, when I was that age it was).

        I wanted to like Prey the same way, and for a part of the book, I did, but it just became less and less plausible as it went along. I was rea

    • Don't worry about it, guys. The EM pulse from some kind of nuclear bomb will kill all the little robots.
  • It's too large to be a microrobot.
    • It's ok, it was part of their scheme to have some funding back in the old day. They didn't know the magic word "Nano". They'll learn it fast when they need more fund. Watch for Swarming solar-powered nanorobot in a close future.
    • by lxs (131946)

      but it's not cute enough to be called a minibot.

  • Impressive (Score:4, Interesting)

    by A. B3ttik (1344591) on Tuesday September 01, 2009 @06:40AM (#29272037)
    These things look like something right out of a science-fiction movie. I wonder how expensive they are to produce? They look light enough that you could literally spray them from a passing plane to gather intel on a suspicious site.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday September 01, 2009 @06:46AM (#29272071)

    The ultimate way to stop any physical machine nowadays is to cut off its power supply. The ability to configure swarm-based robots that use their own powers is a new milestone at creating a potentially unstoppable force.

    Grey-goo requirements checklist:

    1. Decentralized: check
    2. Self-sustaining: check
    3. Adaptable: not yet but can be potentially achieved with sufficiently complex programming
    4. Self-replicating: not yet, our last bastion of hope

    What a good thing it is that robots can't fsck... yet.

    • The ultimate way to stop any physical machine nowadays is to cut off its power supply.

      Let us scorch the skies before it is too late.

      • by Turiko (1259966)
        if the matix thought us anything, that's about the time humanity gets enslaved as power source :(
        • Actually if the sequels taught us anything it's that good CGI do not a great movie make /yoda
        • by gnick (1211984)

          if the matix thought us anything, that's about the time humanity gets enslaved as power source :(

          That bugged the hell out of me with the whole premise, not that I didn't enjoy the movie (pity there were no sequels). What part of "Life is endothermic" don't you understand?!?

    • by JJJK (1029630) on Tuesday September 01, 2009 @07:08AM (#29272183) Homepage
      the "grey goo threat" might be something to be considered, but it shouldn't stop us from further exploring micro/nanobots. I'm tired of hearing someone shout "grey goo!" or "skynet!" every time there is some advance in nanotechnology or AI (and I mean the ones who are actually being serious about it). You can't stop the progress in these fields (and you shouldn't, considering all the positive aspects), or just repeat fear-mongering from luddites/attention-whores/sci-fi-writers. Instead, try to understand current research and help to find ways to make these things safe!
  • Dear God people!!! Has no-one read PREY!!!?!?!?!!?!!!
  • by malbrech (197107) on Tuesday September 01, 2009 @07:01AM (#29272147) Homepage

    Somebody remembers that Gibson novel where exactly these things were made of nano components, and therefore so light that they could fly (suspend would be the more accurate word)?

    OK, I 'll give them ten years to get there ...

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Somebody remembers that Gibson novel where exactly these things were made of nano components, and therefore so light that they could fly (suspend would be the more accurate word)?

      OK, I 'll give them ten years to get there ...

      Wasn't it Neal Stephenson's "The Diamond Age or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer"

      • by radtea (464814)

        Wasn't it Neal Stephenson's "The Diamond Age or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer"

        No, it was Stanislaw Lem's "The Invincible".

    • by radtea (464814) on Tuesday September 01, 2009 @07:36AM (#29272415)

      Somebody remembers that Gibson novel

      You're thinking of Stanislaw Lem's "The Invincible", dating from the early 1970's, at least in translation. The original Polish may have been late '60's.

      For some reason no one ever cites this book as the source of so many ideas about autonomous swarm robots, which Lem called "synthects" for "synthetic insects", although it predates everyone else's "discovery" of these ideas by decades.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Hoplite3 (671379)

        Which was probably an expression of von Neumann's self-replicating machines: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Von_Neumann_cellular_automaton [wikipedia.org]

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by rantingkitten (938138)
        He may also be thinking of Stephenson's "The Diamond Age", where nanotechnology is the main technological component of the novel. Part of it describes a large swarm of these microbots patrolling the perimeter and interior of a city looking for and defeating pathogens.. and outsider microbots. If he's trying to cite Gibson I think it's more likely he got mixed up with Stephenson since they are contemporaries, but what do I know what this guy reads? :)
    • There was a Michael Creighton book call Prey based on the same idea.

  • On grey goo (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday September 01, 2009 @07:12AM (#29272209)

    Every time I hear the "grey goo" debate I ponder why some people love so much to hypothesize about the potential future without taking as much at a single glimpse at the past and present. The grey goo hypothesis states that, as a result of some technological advancement, there will be a matter that is able to function and replicate by consuming available background resources until all resources are consumed and turned into more grey goo. This position utterly fails to realize that there already is matter that does exactly that. It's called life.

    Life already functions in the most optimal way possible at consuming energy and replicating more of its own kind. But the "grey goo" scenario doesn't happen due to a simple natural law of diminishing returns -- as more and more grey goo (or, in our case, life) is produced, the less and less marginal advantage is there at producing more of the same kind. Identical species (or in simpler cases, where there are no "individual specimens", identical biomasses (e.g. mold, grass) first spreads out by consuming the most readily available resource, but as its numbers grow and resources dwindle, it gains less and less marginal advantage at consuming more resources, and becomes its own competitor more than a co-operator. The fact that during the billions of years that life existed on Earth, Earth has not turned into a uniform mass of a single biomatter, utterly destroys the "grey goo" hypothesis.

    On top of that, there is this "adaptability" thing. As grey goo spreads more and more, and becomes its own competitor, some strains of grey goo (lets call it blue goo), through trial and error, will function better when instead of cooperating with other grey goo, exploits it, for example by consuming grey goo directly rather than consuming what the grey goo consumes. In turn, the grey goo will now have to modify its behavior to not only consume and replicate but also to defend itself against blue goo. Then we get yellow goo which likewise will consume blue goo. Then we get some violet goo which adapts to the blue-yellow goo rivalry by, for example, becoming poisonous go yellow goo to consume while offering habitat protection to blue goo in exchange for some released energy from what the blue goo consumed.

    This sequence goes on and on, until we get an ultimate form (brown goo) that sufficiently adapts to consciously exploit other forms of goo for its own needs, build constructed habitats for itself, wage wars on its own kind, and occasionally debate on whether all brown goo specimens originally evolved from humble grey goo, or whether they were created by some Divine Heavenly Goo instead.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by maxume (22995)

      Minor quibble: "Life already functions in the most optimal way possible at consuming energy and replicating more of its own kind." is quite an assertion.

      The use of things like rotating bearings and electric current (for transmission of energy) might enable a self replicating machine to operate much more efficiently than life.

      Then there are the solar panels that capture much more energy than photosynthesis, while not being made (mostly) out of water (so an artificial tree might be able to just keep its leave

      • Re: (Score:1, Interesting)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Such a machine may well outperform a biological one, but does it do so in the most efficient way? How much energy does a tree consume to grow a leaf? How much energy is required to produce a solar panel? What is the energy and resource requirements to produce a high-quality mechanical moving part that outlasts a biological one?

        The core assertion of natural selection is that not the strongest species survive but the most efficient (as well as most adaptable, which is another point in which so far technology

        • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

          by maxume (22995)

          I was very careful to say that solar panels capture more energy. Any estimate of the overall efficiency of such a machine would come with enormous margins of error.

      • The use of things like rotating bearings and electric current (for transmission of energy) might enable a self replicating machine to operate much more efficiently than life.

        I'm not so sure about this. Bacteria use something like a rotating bearing for anchoring the flagellum to the cell membrane. For some reason, this evolutionary feature is absent from eukaryotic organisms (their flagella are undulating, not rotating structures). Maybe they are not so much more effective.

      • I don't see where bearings could give any potential advantage anyways:

        - Wheels are a great big joke for transportation outside of paved or relatively smooth surfaces - look at offroad vehicles, they're horrendously inefficient in every way and there's a reason they're not small. To really get around in nature with wheels would take something like a rock crawler, a necessarily large, extremely complicated and inefficient vehicle that requires a lot of skill to use successfully.

        - Fuel-burning engines are impractical at very small scales and are relatively maintenance-intensive. ICEs are pretty inefficient and turbines are only practical are fairly large scales.

        - And finally the bearings themselves are relatively fragile and maintenance-intensive.

        The best chassis a self-replicating autonomous robot could hope for would be a biological body that can heal itself, doesn't need lubrication systems and has limbs for transportation. Maybe a self-replicating nanobot that acts as a pathogen and 'roots' raccoon bodies (agile, opposable thumbs, pretty well-armed between the claws, teeth and other pathogens they're carrying) would be a successful one. Maybe a life cycle where the bot grows like a plant, producing a sweet infected fruit that the raccoon eats, where it infects the brain and grows more "seeds" in the digestive system would work (although it would still need to reproduce with other raccoons, perhaps also passing the bot along as an STD, or the raccoons that aren't attracted to the fruit would have a selective advantage).

        A good, feasible compromise would be an insect body facsimile - it could be actuated with hydraulic systems, linear electric motors or artificial muscles, all of which are fairly robust, and it could potentially allow the robot to get itself around much better than a wheeled chassis. Imagine a grasshopper-like body that has the option of crawling or taking a huge leap.
        • by maxume (22995)

          And yet we set aside horses and paved the world.

          Who knows what will motivate such a creature, and how they would prefer to repair themselves (healing has lots of advantages, but ask anybody with bad ankles whether they see any advantages to something that bolts on).

    • Missing a Point (Score:2, Insightful)

      by miasmic (669645)
      What you are missing is that life is subject to limitations on the type of resources it can use. Nearly all animals directly need only biomass for food, oxygen and clean water. And with the balanced ecosystem the planet has, the plant kingdom creates the biomass and regenerates 'used' oxygen. A grey goo would not be subject to these limitations. It would probably be able to use several different sources of energy. If animals run out of biomass to eat, they starve to death. Grey goo could foreseeably evolve
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by bhartman34 (886109)
      I'm not a "gray goo" expert, but I think the hypothesis rests, in part, on the idea that the replication of the "goo" will happen so fast that there won't be time for the kind of genetic diversification you'd need to avoid the gray goo scenario. And that's if the gray goo had the ability to diversify at all.

      Think of the gray goo in terms of super-adaptable humans. If humans all of a sudden started multiplying like bacteria (or even close to that pace), you'd get a lot of biodiversity, but you might not
    • by vertinox (846076)

      The fact that during the billions of years that life existed on Earth, Earth has not turned into a uniform mass of a single biomatter, utterly destroys the "grey goo" hypothesis.

      Nuclear weapons weren't natural phenomenon either but we can make them.

      The reasons "grey goo" isn't an natural phenomenon is because without applied intelligence such a thing would not survive in the open without adapting the environment.

      Come to think of it, the closet thing we have to grey goo right now is humans. We basically can

    • by Sabriel (134364)
      You appear to be under the impression that this can only happen once.
    • You fail to take into account that the things that will possibly create the 'goo' think along the lines of 'If A=B then do C'. the procreating hordes on the planet's surface at the moment just want to know where to have lunch. I guess they could choose McDonalds?
  • Great! (Score:5, Funny)

    by Cornwallis (1188489) on Tuesday September 01, 2009 @07:31AM (#29272367)
    Something else to fly up my nose while riding my bike.
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synthetic_setae [wikipedia.org]

    Once they have them, things will become interesting. Or not.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday September 01, 2009 @07:45AM (#29272505)

    Locomotion is achieved via three vibrating legs, while a fourth horizontal vibrating leg is used as a touch sensor.

    I understand that there are quite a few videos about on the 'net showing the use of a horizontal vibrating "leg" as a touch sensor. Not that I frequent such sites, you understand.

  • Sounds like The Outer Limits episode called "Small Friends".
  • by Runaway1956 (1322357) on Tuesday September 01, 2009 @08:28AM (#29272915) Homepage Journal

    Bring the cost down to near nothing, make them self replicating, then foist them off to agriculture. Since they use nice clean energy, they can replace tractors in planting and harvesting. In between those activities, they can tend the crop. Enough of these little dudes can monitor individual plants for disease, then treat or remove affected plants. Monitor and regulate moisture for maximum effect at each plant. Heck, they could even pollinate plants since the honeybee population has been devastated in recent years.

    If I had a zillion little microbots or nanobots, I could find a LOT of better uses than spying on my neighbor. My neighbors are pretty damned homely anyway, I don't WANT to watch them doing whatever they do when I can't see them!

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by SatanicPuppy (611928) *

      Now there is a solution in search of a problem.

      I'm trying to imagine a horde of tiny robots lugging a single ear of corn a few miles to a drop off point, and then I'm picturing a combine harvester harvesting a whole acre every few minutes, while also doing processing!

      Likewise blight and disease. It's usually pretty obvious. You could make little machines to eat pests, but nature has been doing it for a lot longer, and the bitch is pretty good at it.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by drinkypoo (153816)

        I'm trying to imagine a horde of tiny robots lugging a single ear of corn a few miles to a drop off point, and then I'm picturing a combine harvester harvesting a whole acre every few minutes, while also doing processing!

        Why don't you also picture what is happening beneath the soil! The use of heavy machinery for harvesting creates hardpan, which results in poor drainage, which results in the death of whole classes of biota which make up a significant percentage of the mass of healthy soil. Tilling also produces hardpan. Growing crops as monocultures actually creates pest problems, by eliminating the habitat and protection for beneficial insects and other creatures (e.g. birds and lizards) who also consume harmful pests.

        Ant

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by SatanicPuppy (611928) *

          Disagree. Sure, a combine will leave a pair of wheel ruts that are pretty deep, but that's not remotely enough to call the whole field hardpan, or kill off all the happy bacteria, soil-loosening worms, and biomass that makes a decent growth medium for crops.

          There is already a move to re-adopt no-till agriculture. Using macro machinery [google.com] doesn't prohibit that, and using micro-machinery doesn't mean that it's more likely.

          Contrast those big ruts with the sort of scorched earth devastation left behind by the kind

          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by Runaway1956 (1322357)

            Actually, there is precious little biomass in our agricultural fields today. Tilling has destroyed it. Go out into any cornfield, wheatfield, whatever. Dig down into the soil, and come up with a handfull of stuff. Examine it with your naked eye, and you'll find - dirt. That's it, just dirt.

            Go into a field that has lain fallow for a few years. Dig down, grab a handful and examine it. Worms, bugs, grubs, decaying vegetable matter - life. You don't require a microscope or special instruments to see the

            • Re: (Score:1, Flamebait)

              by SatanicPuppy (611928) *

              What the hell are you talking about? The issue here is how to harvest a field...The fact that I even brought up no-till at all is a side issue.

              Move your soapbox somewhere else.

              • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

                by Runaway1956 (1322357)

                "What the hell are you talking about?"

                The big picture, is all. The issue is not just harvesting a field, as evidenced from my first post. The issue is caring for the plant, throughout it's life, as well as the soil, and all the rest of the environment that the plant is grown in.

                Perhaps you didn't read and comprehend Drinkypoo's post? It's pretty clear that he sees more advantage to micro and/or nanobots than just harvesting without tractors.

                Ideally, there wouldn't even be beanfields, cornfields, etc. A

                • And both of you are ignoring any other potential impact from applying nanotech to simple things like harvesting crops!

                  Take a best case: special ants that are bred to plant/harvest fields for us. What's the cost? Unknown. What's the major benefit? Is there going to even be one? What's the effect on the rest of the ecosystem? Impossible to predict.

                  Frankly, I think it's much more likely that we'll move to centralized hydroponics than that we'll try anything like a micro-solution to this very macro problem. Cen

                  • by drinkypoo (153816)

                    Frankly, I think it's much more likely that we'll move to centralized hydroponics than that we'll try anything like a micro-solution to this very macro problem. Central hydro solves the whole problem (no more need for field crops at all), and reduces transport costs as well.

                    Wrong. A more diverse soil culture produces food with higher nutrient value. If it were not so pathetically easy to find citations, I would provide some. Hydroponics is way down at the same end of the scale as typical, modern continuous farming of monocultures using machine harvesting and tilling (with its previously described attendant problems) which is essentially hydroponic farming using (dead) soil as a medium. Since the tilth is shallow and the crops are grown for one season and then tilled or burned,

    • by nasor (690345)
      "Make them self-replicating"??? That's a problem many orders of magnitude more difficult. If we can make tiny robots that can fabricate high-efficiency solar panels, making agriculture easier will be a distant second behind solving our energy problems forever.
    • by mbone (558574)

      If I had a zillion little microbots or nanobots, I could find a LOT of better uses than spying on my neighbor.

      You don't understand how political power works.

  • I'm a bit startled about these new decepticon warriors. Megatrons own survailance crew!
  • Mobility
    What types of environment can they move about in? Desert? Shallow water? Everything in between?
    Are they small turtles or could the design be made self-righting?
    Communication - Range? - Algorithm to leave a trail of relay bots for longer ranges?
    Sensors
    Just touch? Basically just mapping then.
    Could they maybe have sensors for sniffing out explosives?
    Images? - Should a paranoid person worry if they find a few of those near a wind

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday September 01, 2009 @09:35AM (#29273543)

    Hizook.com has some cool videos showing the micro robots moving around. Worth checking out.

    http://www.hizook.com/blog/2009/08/29/i-swarm-micro-robots-realized-impressive-full-system-integration [hizook.com]

  • Where's the rest of the story? These devices are useless without communications and without sensory capability beyond detecting whether or not they've bumped into something. The locomotion will work on a smooth, hard surface, but beyond that, it's not useful.

    To be sure, this class of device has potential, but as built, these are nothing but parlor tricks.

    The only application I can think of is will come up if there's a retro resurgence of the Coleco vibrating football games of the 1960s.

  • Someone needs to welcome the new solar powered overlords.

  • by mark-t (151149) <markt@@@lynx...bc...ca> on Tuesday September 01, 2009 @10:02AM (#29273751) Journal

    Locomotion is achieved via three vibrating legs, while a fourth horizontal vibrating leg is used as a touch sensor."

    Did anybody else raise an eyebrow at this sentence, finding the notion to be perhaps a bit of a double entendre?

  • RENEGADE!! (Score:3, Funny)

    by drewmca (611245) on Tuesday September 01, 2009 @10:14AM (#29273843)
    As long as Gene Simmons isn't holding the control box, I'm cool.
  • That's it! From now on, I'm only committing crimes at night.
  • This is one of those typical popular science articles which totally mixed up the actual present-day achievement with a grandiose vision of the future, so the reader gets a giant dose of future shock when it's not called for.

    Look carefully at what's actually built. A tiny vibrating bit of metal with a touch switch. It *looks* like a little bug, but its robotic capabilities are roughly equal to that of a a doorbell.

    If the vibrating legs work as claimed, it can move in an uncontrolled, hopefully straight, pa

  • to step on one.
  • and wasn't impressed by this "nano-threat 1.0". They work okay so far - on a verrry flat surface - but on shag carpet? Staircases, elevator thresholds, door jambs, etc? Not so much. I'll wait a few hundred more generations for the first "don't make me laugh" models.

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