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Swiss researchers lay foundations for smart microrobots

Researchers look at a model of the origami bird.

Laura Heyderman (left) and Tian-Yun Huang (center) look at a model of the origami bird, while Jizhai Cui observes the real microrobot under a microscope. What he can see is shown in the video made by the researchers.

(Paul Scherrer Institute/Mahir Dzambegovic)

Researchers in Switzerland have developed a bird-shaped micromachine that can perform various tasks and could be used for medical operations.

The tiny origami-like robot was assembled by researchers at the Swiss federal institutes ETH Zurich and Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI). The microrobot is made up of nanomagnets that are magnetically programmed and controlled through magnetic fields.

The bird constructed from this material could perform movements such as flapping, hovering, turning or side-slipping.

"The movements performed by the microrobot take place within milliseconds", says Laura Heyderman, head of the Laboratory for Multiscale Materials Experiments at PSI and professor for Mesoscopic Systems at the Department of Materials, ETH Zurich.

video

video of the microrobt

The video shows the movements of the microrobot in the form of a bird.

Reprogrammed in a split second

The tiny robot measures only a few tens of micrometres across and could be used to perform small operations on the human body. The nanomagnets can be reprogrammed to produce new movements within nanoseconds.

This novel concept is an important step towards micro- and nanorobots that not only store information to give a particular action, but also can be reprogrammed to perform different tasks.

"It is conceivable that, in the future, an autonomous micromachine will navigate through human blood vessels and perform biomedical tasks such as killing cancer cells", explains Bradley Nelson, head of Department of Mechanical and Process Engineering at ETH Zurich.

These results were published this week in the scientific journal Nature.

The scanning electron microscope image shows the bird-like construct with arrangements of nanoscale magnets.

The scanning electron microscope image shows the bird-like construct with arrangements of nanoscale magnets. The magnets can be magnetised in different orientations parallel to the colour bars. By programming their magnetisation, the researchers can make bird carry out different movements in a magnetic field.

(Paul Scherrer Institute/Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich)

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