Will Micro-Scale Robots Be Available Soon?
Chip makers are struggling with miniaturization to keep pace with moore’s law. The cutting-edge technology is extreme ultraviolet (EUV) lithography. While EUV is still being introduced into product lines, a killer technology is already born. Mashable reported this february 20th 2012 that an australian team from the Centre for Quantum Computation and Communication Technology (CQC2T) did figure out a repeatable technique to create a single-atom transistor using a scanning-tunneling microscope (STM). Video 1 shows an interview with the scientists that did achieve this breakthrough that for sure will revolutionize the way electronics are designed and used.
Video 1: Tiny Transistor by the CQC2T
By having a technology to build atom-scale transistors, chip makers will be able to build tiny chips for micro-scale robots. Building robots of such a small size is also a challenge. But, there are good news on this side too. In a news posted on february 17th, robots.net pointed Video 2 from the Harvard Micro-Robotics Lab on Mobee, a flapping-wing micro-drone. It shows a process for repeated fabrication of the bee-inspired robot.
Video 2: Fabrication of the Harvard Millimeter-Scale Drone
So, we have the building blocks for tiny yet powerful chips that can be carried by micro-robots. Still, we aren’t their yet.The most challenging missing part is energy. A millimeter-size robot such as Mobee cannot carry a battery. At least not one that allows it to function for more than few minutes. Energy is an issue even for larger robots. Consider the Kilobot also from Harvard University but made by another team: the Self Organizing Systems Group. This is a terrestrial robot of about 33 mm diameter. As opposite to drones which consumes energy even if they stand still, most terrestrial robots including Kilobot consume energy only during locomotion. The Kilobot carries a battery that allows it operate for about 3 hours. Fine for lab experiments. But, we are still far for what would be required to send a robot out for a full day mission.
Video 3: Official Introduction to Kilobot
One possible solution is BetaVoltaic battery that may last 20+ years of continuous use! The basic idea discovered in the 1950’s is to surround a nuclear isotope with a semi-conductor. As the radioactive isotope decays, it emits electrons (beta particles) that are collected by the semi-conductor. Although it’s nuclear, these batteries are said to be harmless since they turn inert after running out of power. According to BatBatt that develops BetaVoltaic batteries, the technology delivers only low-current. It can however be paired with chemical batteries for delivering more power.