MIT Researchers Build Impressively Small Robot That Can Walk and Build Other Bots

The robot may also offer opportunities to work in small and tight spaces, previously unreachable.
Fabienne Lang

Using inspiration from our very own living bodies, MIT Professor Neil Gershenfeld and his students have built a tiny motorized robot by creating five different parts that work together.

These parts are customizable and can be used to assemble other robots, in an inexpensive and quick way.


The MIT robot was presented at the International Conference on Manipulation, Automation and Robotics at Small Scales (MARSS) in Helsinki, Finland, this week.

How does this mini robot function?

It's made up of only five modular parts: rigid and flexible components, electromagnetics, a coil, and a magnet. 

These parts are fixed to an appendage that can then crawl, push, grip and do tasks that more complicated robots struggle to do, or that require more complex and rigid structures.

A Discretely Assembled Walking Motor from MIT Center for Bits and Atoms on Vimeo.

This new robot can be likened to a "micro-Lego" that can be fashioned to perform the task that you wish, without being overcomplicated to put together. 

Gershenfelt and his team have created an alternative to the previously known approaches of building robots. 

What will this invention be useful for?

The parts could be used as a standardized kit of parts, to be assembled as robots that perform a specific set of tasks. These robots could then be assembled and disassembled easily to perform different tasks. 

This will reduce the need for manufacturing different and new robots each time.

As the parts put together can lift over seven times their own weight. Much like ants, it can be used to perform some pretty weighty tasks.

MIT Researchers Build Impressively Small Robot That Can Walk and Build Other Bots
Cross between a 3-D printer and the pick-and-place machines that manufacture electronic circuits. Source: Will Langford/MIT

Moreover, as Gershenfeld said, "One emerging application is to make tiny robots that can work in confined spaces." 

Some of the robots they created were smaller than a penny coin.

This will be useful for getting into tight and small spaces. Alternatively, you can assemble the robot to be larger and move on a big scale. It can tackle large or small scale projects.

This may lead to a new direction in robotics, helping the industry keep bots available to most, and not simply to those who can afford their typically high prices, or only to those who know how to handle very niche robots. 

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