Sandia claims smallest robot

What may be the world's smallest robot has been developed by researchers at the US Department of Energy Sandia National Laboratories (Albuquerque, NM).

Th 0301news2

What may be the world's smallest robot has been developed by researchers at the US Department of Energy Sandia National Laboratories (Albuquerque, NM). At 0.25 in.3 and weighing less than an ounce, it is possibly the smallest autonomous robot ever built. Powered by three watch batteries, it rides on track wheels and consists of an 8K ROM PIC 16C77 processor from Microchip Technology (San Jose, CA), a temperature sensor, and two motors that drive the wheels. Enhancements being considered include a miniature camera, microphone, communication device, and chemical microsensor.

"This could be the robot of the future," says Ed Heller, one of the project's researchers. "It may eventually be capable of performing difficult tasks that are performed with larger robots-such as locating and disabling land mines or detecting chemical and biological weapons."

Heller says it could scramble through pipes or prowl around buildings looking for chemical plumes or human movement. The minirobot has already maneuvered its way through a field of dimes and nickels and travels at about 20 in./minute.

Sandia's robot-miniaturization research supports work started in the lab's Intelligent Systems Sensors and Controls Department. In 1996, the department unveiled a Mini Autonomous Robot Vehicle, a 1-in.3 robot that contained on-board power, sensors, computers, and controls. Built from commercial parts using conventional machining techniques, the robots' bodies were made of printed-circuit boards, and each had an obstacle detector sensor, radio, temperature sensor, and batteries. At 1.6 x 0.75 x 0.71 in., they were still larger than was desirable.

Th 0301news2
Click here to enlarge image

Doug Adkins takes a closeup view of the minirobots he and Ed Heller are developing at Sandia National Laboratories. At 0.25 in.3 and weighing less than an ounce, they are possibly the samllest autonomous untethered robots ever created.

To further miniaturize the robots, the Intelligent Systems and Robotics Center teamed with Sandia's Sensor Technologies Department. By trying new packaging electronics, wheel design, and body material, researchers shrunk the robots to 0.25 in3. Heller, who developed the device's microelectronics, says one significant innovation that permitted the shrinkage was the use of commercially available unpackaged electronics parts.

"Previous small robots consisted of packaged electronic parts that were bulky and that took up space. By eliminating packaging and using electronic components in die form, the size of the robots' electronics was reduced," Heller says. Unpackaged parts were assembled onto a multichip module on a glass substrate at Sandia's Compound Semiconductor Research Laboratory. Over the next few years, Heller expects to add to the mini-robots either infrared or radio wireless two-way communication capability, miniature video cameras, microphones, and chemical microsensors.

More in Robotics