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Barcelona boffin births swarming microrobots

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ISSCC Microrobotics just took a giant step toward reality, according to a paper presented at this week's International Solid-State Circuits Conference (ISSCC) in San Francisco.

Microrobots are the subject of intense experimentation and development in a project formally known as Intelligent Small World Autonomous Robots for Micro-manipulation, but better known by its more entomological acronym, I-SWARM.

Begun in 2003, with support of the EU Information Society Technologies (IST) Sixth Framework Programme, the I-SWARM project has sought to build microrobots a few cubic millimeters in size that can autonomously move, sense their surroundings, make decisions based upon data from their sensors, and communicate and work with one another.

According to the paper presented by Raimon Casanova of the University of Barcelona, his team has finally accomplished these goals with an optically programmable I-SWARM microrobot that's a mere 23mm3 in size, and which weighs only 73 milligrams.

Don't expect Casanova's I-SWARM microrobots to soon crawl their miniscule way into your life quite yet, however. His prototypes works only within a small "controlled area" lit by a high intensity lamp. That lamp powers the I-SWARM's 3.9x3.9mm2 solar-cell array, which generates 1mW at 1.4V to power the core of its system-on-chip (SoC) brains, and .5mW at 3.6V to power the I-SWARM's sensors and actuators, including its three legs.

Juice is stored in two capacitors, and an array of power-saving technologies manage the device's meager power capacity.

Needless to say, the I-SWARM's SoC is an ultra-low-power device. Event-driven, it takes its commands from the device's sensors, and makes decisions based on that data about what actions the device will take, based on how it's programmed.

The I-SWARM's memory complement is equally tiny: 8kB program and 2kB data. Each time an I-SWARM is switched on, it must be reprogrammed - a process which is done by beaming pulses of light to two tiny solar cells. Casanova admits that this process is slow - it takes about 45 minutes - but adds that an entire swarm of I-SWARMs can be programmed at the same time.

Each I-SWARM moves, turns, starts, and stops by individually vibrating its three piezoelectric legs, and communicates with its fellows through four LED/photodiode pairs.

Although its communications are primitive in this prototype, the I-SWARM's capabilities are sure to grow as more research is done. Investigations are already underway, for example, as to how microrobots might be used in space exploration.

Imagine, if you will, a tiny, tinny voice taught to say, "Take me to your leader." ®

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