In a few years, microrobotic creatures just millimeters in diameter may do everything from creating materials with new molecular properties to performing military reconnaissance flights. They'll duplicate the wing motions of the housefly to become hard-to-detect surveillance tools or take 200,000 measurements per second to unlock the mysteries of DNA.
Sound like science fiction? It's closer to science than fiction. Futuristic efforts under way at MIT and the University of California, Berkeley, are using microscopic circuitry to take us into a world we've only imagined.
UC Berkeley's Robofly project, funded jointly by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Office of Naval Research, started in 1998 as "an ambitious, not completely thought-out idea," says Ron Fearing, professor of electrical engineering and computer science and a project founder. Three years later, he admits numerous hurdles remain. Free flight, like that of the housefly, "is still a couple of years away," he says.
The Nanowalker project, funded by the nonprofit Seaver Institute, is closer to reality, 2-1/2 years after it began. It will reach a milestone next month when a prototype of the tiny buglike robot is delivered to researchers. Just 32 millimeters in diameter, Nanowalkers, which look like cube-shaped fleas, will "walk" on a special floor that feeds them power and will feature onboard computers capable of performing 48 million instructions per second. Remote devices will communicate with the creatures via an infrared communication-positioning system similar to the one used in air-traffic control systems. They'll be used to create molecular materials and for DNA research. Sylvain Martel, an MIT research scientist and the Nanowalker project coordinator, says he's still relatively calm about the pending arrival of the prototype. "You know when I'll be nervous?" he says. "When we go to turn the power on."