There are times where working together can create results vastly in excess of multiple individual efforts. This kind of collaborative effort was the approach taken by a number of Stanford University researchers when they developed a series of amazingly strong microbots. By working together in perfect harmony, it took only 6 microTug microbots, each weighing 17-grams, in order to move an 1800kg car.
The microTug robots’ designs take a lot of cues from nature, where such feats are commonly seen in insects like ants. Like an ant, each microTug is strong individually, but when they work together, the results are astounding. Talking to the New York Times David Christensen, a graduate student from the BDML lab, said “By considering the dynamics of the team, not just the individual, we are able to build a team of our ‘microTug’ robots that, like ants, are super strong individually, but then also work together as a team.” He also compared the feat of pulling the car to 6 human beings moving the Eiffel Tower.
Ants aren’t the only creatures that the microTug bots were designed from either. Part of the bots strength comes from the pads on their bases, which are actually covered in sticky rubber spikes, similar to a gecko, providing enormous amounts of grip that can be used to anchor them while they pull objects. These tiny spikes bend under pressure, providing a larger contact surface area and stickiness while still being easy to detach with the spikes straightening out again when the pad is lifted.
This line of robot-pulling research is has been published as part of a paper titled Let’s All Pull Together: Principles for Sharing Large Loads in Microrobot Teams and is due to be presented at International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Stockholm this May.