The world of tiny robots
You're listening to brains on or serious about being curious brains on is supported in part by a grant from the national. Science, Foundation. Bali either I know you're about to go. Take the but I have to tell you about this dream. I just had sure listening to people recount. Their dreams is never boring Oh. Yeah, remember when I told you about that one. I was waiting in line for a smoothie, but then a dog came up to me and handed me a cup of tomato soup instead, and then the dog took me on a walk, and we made like twenty different stops at shops and parks and. And stuff and I told you about every single one. I remember vividly well. Wait until you hear about this in my dream. I invented this tiny little robot. Basically it lived in my shoes, and whenever I put them on, it would crawl out of a small hole and tie them no hands necessary. And then we just crawled back when it was done when I wasn't wearing the shoes, it would destroy all the odor causing bacteria inside. WHAT AN AMAZING ROBOT! It was called. The shoe crab, Horseshoe Crab No. The shoe crab that sounds so useful and adorable friends. This dream was a wakeup call I need to build the shoe crab. I already invented my brain. Now I just need to figure out how to make it real. Tinker table. Don't worry shoe crab. I shall free you from my mind good luck mark. Wow, that's amazing. We should have to the studio, but I I need to tell you about this other dream I had okay for some reason I was dressed like a baby from an old cartoon like a Onesie and a bonnet, and with a pacifier in my mouth, and all around me were tiny Caesar Salad I just hey. Now. You're listening to brains on for American public media is Molly. Bloom my co host. Today is Eva from fondling Wisconsin welcome thanks for having me so eva, what is your favorite robot real or fictional? My favorite robot is probably a real robot named spot and he was made, or it was made in Boston Dynamics and I find it really cool because. It can do things such as like deliver. Things has its own camera to see things that humans can't. It can help with research. It can open an hold doors for people, and it's all in general just fun to watch. That sounds like a very very cool robot. I've never seen it before succumbing to describe what it looks like. It's. Like kind of shaped like a dog, it's very yellow. And it walked dog to wow. What do you think of about robots in general? When I think of robots in general, I think of them as like. Mostly helpful, but some people they do think of them as like evil in trying to take world in Mike. Not. Budding humans do what they usually do mostly when I think of robots I think as. Helpful in they could change our world in the future. Robots are a lot of fun to think about, and there are so many lovable robots in pop culture like bb eight from star, wars or Betamax from big hero, six or wally. He saying hi to you, Eva Hi Wally now. These robots are all the size of animals or humans. But what about robots that are much much smaller, right? Today's episode was inspired by this question. My name is Greta from knife for Minnesota and my question is. What is the smallest robot in existence before we get into it either I just want to ask you how we're talking about tiny robots. How big do you imagine them to be? The smallest robot I've worked with is properly about two inches. So when I think of tiny robots, my imagination would probably be like so small that I can't see it way when you say you've worked with robots. Tell me more about that. You've worked with robots. Yes I'm encoding club, so I do a lot of coding and a lot of with robots. So when you code robots. What have you been able to make them do so what we've been doing? The called ABBOTS and we took the special colored markers, and we would draw them in some sort of like maize or pattern on a piece of paper, and then we'd put the. Down? What about like five inches? And the ISO according to the colors would move a certain way, and you could coordinate them with a specific color and. Like you can make spin, you could make it. Go really fast stuff like that. That is so cool, so you. You know your robots. Pretty well that's awesome. So before we get into the question that Greta ask which is what is the smallest robot we need to begin by defining what exactly a robot is now. Not everyone agrees on the definition one hundred percent, but here's what a lot of people think, and the definition that we're working with today. A robot can sense was going on around them. Decide what to do next and then actually do it, so this means a remote controlled car is not a robot, because you are controlling it with a remote, it's not driving itself around, but a real robot car would be programmed to make decisions and drive by itself. It would have what we call artificial. When a machine can make decisions and move on its own, we call that autonomous, or we say it has a ton of. Real robots are autonomous. So, what's the smallest robot right now? This is tricky to answer. There are a lot of machines out there. That are tiny that are being called the world's smallest robot. But they can't do much on their own. They can be controlled by magnetic field or infrared light, or even vibrations, and some of them are super duper tiny. You would need a microscope to see them. which is super cool, but it's closer to remote controlled cars in one that drives itself. Researchers are working on making them fully autonomous robots, but they're not there yet. One of the contenders for the title of smallest robot that can do all the things we talked about is the Kilo bought? It's about three centimeters or as big as a quarter. So why aren't tiny robust even Tinier and why aren't there more of them? Yes, small robots are hard. That's Illinois Bauch. He's a professor at Carnegie Mellon University in the Robotics Institute. He's also written the books. Books, robot futures and AI and humanity. He spends a lot of time thinking about robots in the way, humans relate to them, and he says there are many reasons why building tiny robots is tricky. One of them is physics changes. When you start making things released, small things become sticky. You know how a Gecko or a spider sticks to a wall. They have tiny hairs on the. The bottoms of their feet that are attracted to the wall through something called. Vander waals forces. Those forces can make tiny robots stick stuff, too, so you're stuck to surfaces that you weren't intending to stick to. Because you're accidentally kind of sectioning to them, and sometimes instead of being sticky, tiny Rwasa movie slippery, so if you're trying to get friction down to the ground, zero wheels turn properly. Properly just slip because the thing is so light doesn't really have viscous friction with the ground very well. Another problem is powering the robot with electricity. As you make a robot release Hymie. You have to make a really tiny battery, and that's both physically difficult, because the battery is actual chemical system, so it's hard to make it small, but it's still has a microprocessor is still thinking. Whatever the computer version of thinking is, and that takes a lot of power, and that's going to drain your battery pretty fast, so tiny robots are hard, because they can accidentally stick to things, or sometimes they slip and slide too much, and it's hard to make batteries teen enough to power them plus a lot of equipment and materials. You wouldn't need to make tiny robots don't necessarily exist yet, but there are indeed some pretty small robots that have some level of autonomy, and they have something in common. They were inspired by insects. We asked brains on producer Matoco Wilhelm to look into that and oh. America you did more than just look of course I, did Molly? I really wanted to understand moving like a bug? So I made these cockroach inspired shoe covers. Oh, wow, now can scuttle. Please hold still that sound is to is for me. Okay. I get it. Cockroaches are not everybody's thing, but they've managed to solve a lot of the problems. You mentioned they're small. They can move around without too much sticking or slipping, and they do it all without running out of power. So. Why not try to model tiny robots after cockroaches or other bugs makes perfect sense, if nature already figured out a good design for a tiny autonomous thing, why not try to learn from that? Precisely, a lot of scientists are doing just that and it turns out scuttling like a cockroach is actually a great way for a robot to get around couch. Jerem is an engineer who has worked on Cockroach, inspired mini bots. Carpet excellent. Running really fast, they can climb up walls just as easily as they can run on level ground. Along ceilings they can easily squish into really small gaps, and they are seemingly indestructible. The robot. The cow chicken is t made looks a little like a tiny matchbox with four legs. It can run in different directions just like an insect, and it's not quite as fast as a real cockroach, but it does have one robo talent that cockroaches don't. It can run backwards cool also little. Well. Here's another insect inspiration that might have a lower factor. The flea fleas are master hoppers. Jumping is kind of Nice. When you're small because you can handle all the kind of rough terrain and obstacles might be in your way. Sarrebourg writer has worked on a bunch of little bots that spring into the air to move around. One looks a little like a tiny upside down palm tree. It's about an inch and a half tall with four feet at its base, and it's little. Parts are programmed to press down a tiny spring. and. Then release it to jump into the air, and this is the way jumping insects for two so they they store energy in a spring, Anthony release that suddenly to get the very high acceleration and high power that they need to jump fleas don't use metal springs. They just have springy parts of their legs. That work like this, and that's what the Flea Bot is copying eventually, the idea is that the flea bought could jump around or hitch a ride on other beings, the way fleas hitch rides on cats and dogs, and besides being small and moving well, bugs are also great at working in groups, which brings us to another insect that's. That's inspired engineers. So you think about these. They're normally in high. How do they work together? And how do they work as individuals feral held? Link is a researcher at Harvard. She's working on a little robot called the Robo be it's got two wings and four little legs, and its tiny. These robots wait eighty milligrams, which is about as much as a postage stamp. They're very very late. Whenever hand one to people that are like? Oh my gosh, and because they're so small, it would be very hard for Robey, too. Do much on its own, but in a big group or a swarm small things can be very mighty. Here's Sara, again. So I think about the ants in your yard. They can carry off your bag of potato chips as they want to. Even though each one is very very tiny, but if you have enough of them, they can really wreck havoc on your lunch. If only we could program. Row will be stop those ads from stealing our lunches now. That would be useful. Yeah, leave our lunches out this. Tiny things can also use that teamwork to build big stuff. Some termite colonies have built nests that are thirty feet high, so other researchers have taken a page from that termite handbook and made little builder Bots, and here's what's really cool about these termite like robots. They don't have to talk to each other to work as a team. All the termites just have the same goal. Stack blocks to build a structure and then. Then! Each individual robot just figures out what it needs to do on its own to make it happen pretty amazing. Teamwork makes the dream work for people and tiny robots, but at this point real insects have robo insects beat Dave adopted to survive and move in incredible ways so before I go I have to that. Some scientists are trying to add devices to real live cockroaches, so they can move those bugs with remote. It doesn't work perfectly. One team did it by strapping little bug backpacks onto cockroaches. Oh, cool! Breath! Am I headed the school micro trend Nope your backpack is actually a tiny little computer. It's going to tell your legs where to go. WanNa. Well, that's time for me to scuttle. Catch you all later by MANTECA. About Lebron's on. Now before we move on, we have something for you to sense and then react to. It's the. Here it is. and. Okay Eva. What is your guess? Maybe it's like a robot that could be like vibrating like something. vibrating I feel like that gets more vibration every single second. Yes I heard vibrating noises to. We're going to listen to it again. have another chance to guess in just a bit. Do you have a question you want to hear answered on brings on maybe a mystery, sound or drying to share maybe a drying of Mark's shoe crab. US. Just go to brains on dot org slash contact. That's where we got this question. Day Miami ads. And I'm from LACROSSE IN MINNESOTA. My question is why does this? Can't will around the earth. We'll be back with an answer to that during our moment of 'em at the end of the show, plus we will read the most recent group of names to be added to the brains honor roll, so stick around. You're listening to brains on from American public media. I'm Eva. And I'm Ali. It's time to get back to that mystery sound and before listen to it again. I'm just going to tell you that it does not have much to do with robots at all, okay. It kind of sounds like a bunch of like. Maybe like golf balls. Like the dumping a bunch of. Some sort of balls into a cup or something, and it's making that vibrating noise. That is a really incredible. Here is the answer. Hi, my name is ruin. And I'm six years old from Toronto and thous down to be dropping a golf ball into a rain gutter pipe. Eva I am so impressed that is. All! We when we chosen like this sounds so cool, but it seems really hard to guess, but no, you had no trouble. A Golf Ball in a cup is so close to a golf ball a rain gutter. I lived next to a golf course and I. Don't also so you're you have some familiarity with the sound golf balls? Make in different circumstances, yeah. I love that excellent excellent guests. Spring on. There are lots of smart people working on making tiny robots that could help humans and our environment in lots of different ways. There's so many possibilities that's so fun to imagine. What the future looks like and a lot of you have ideas for what you want to see. My name is penny, and I am from Bozeman. Montana and my little robot would be flying stored fighting robot that would. Fly around new IM- sword. Fight the mosquitoes that tried to buy you and it would sound like this Sh-. Hybrid on this Anshu from Toronto Ontario Canada. My tiny robot would be able to brush my teeth for me and it could do it in ten seconds. High brains on my name is van in my robot would clean up over my toys in. Give me money in its sowed would be. My name is Cindy from Boulder Colorado and my little robot would clean up my room for me. Give me my favorite foods garden for me and spray bug spray. Any excuse tried to bite me. Mine is my life and I'm from Castle Rock Colorado. My tiny robot would be named Dan Tolbert and it would clean my teeth, so I've never have to go to the dentist and the noise. It would make would be Very creative thinking in some of those are not that far off from what scientists are working on now there are already tiny robotic sensors that are helping filter the air to make a cleaner and healthier us, debrief and robot expert normal. She sees other nooses for small robots on the horizon they could help clean up oil spills or help the environment and other ways. We use incredible amount of pesticides. In agriculture now because we're trying to in a very Broadway get rid of the wrong species, we can grow the right species to make food. If, we can create low cost robust. That can do things like literally weeding. So they can physically pull out the problem tests and leave the place that changes the game, because then we can have much less impact on the climate, much less watershed issues and still do things like farming. We have to get help from it so I'm optimistic in the sense that we need solutions to our world's problems, especially climate change. And the only half the solutions is going to be through really smart, Community Co, designed technologies and robotics during the played an important role in that. Other scientists are working on tiny robots that you can wear even tiny robots that can go inside your body, but those are still in the very early research stages I wonder what role robots will play in our lives in twenty years or thirty years. It's fun to imagine. Another beautiful day at brains on headquarters, and look our old friend, EVA is here. Hello, and this is my daughter Eva Junior High Eva Eva Junior I'm so glad you're here. You're just in time. It's been years of hard work, but I'm finally ready to unveil. The shoot grab! Oh Wow you finally did it amazing. What's shoot? Grab? It can tie your shoes for you and destroy odor causing bacteria. Shoot Graham. A true robot can take an information about the world around it side would do with that information and then do it. That's called autonomy. Scientists are working on making small robots many inspired by insects. There are some challenges in making small robust in how they behave, and the parts available to make them. But robotic technology could play a big role in solving problems especially in keeping our environment healthy. That's it for this episode of brains on. On this produced by Molly Bloom Mar Santa's then taught and. Monica Wilhelm we had production help from Christina Lopez and engineering help from Veronica Rodriguez special thanks Tim Lynn the Harvard Microbiology Lab Andy Doucet. Brains nonprofit public radio PODCASTS. Your support helps us keep making new episodes head to brains on dot. Org Slash fans to support the show. Now before we go, it's time for our moment of candidate will around the earth. This a really good question the thing is it's hard for us to sense how much the sun is actually moving. I'm Britney. Come I I'm a scientist who studies the universe, and I work on building detector to be able to see out in the universe. In our solar system, our son is in the center of it, and we're all going around it the same way in a race track all the cars go around the same center. It's similar with the sun is that the sun is going slowly around? The center of our galaxy brought it so. We. Don't notice it on earth. So we're on earth and earth is going around the sun. And we looked out and we realize these tiny little dots were moving around, and those tiny little dots were other planets, and then we were able to put together the picture that all these planets were connected in our solar system. When we continue to look up and look out then we made really really really precise measurements of other stars, and so their star similar to our sun. And then you start to see that they're all orbiting around something in the middle. And when you start to work out. The. Path the stars are taking you find out. There's a super massive black hole like there's a huge huge huge black hole, so the sun actually does move, and it moves around a supermassive black hole in the center of the Galaxy. My heart revolves around these listeners. It's the brains honor roll. These are the talented and brilliant listeners who send us their questions ideas. Mystery sounds drawings and hi. Five's grace from Leo Indiana Isabella from Highland Mills New York Oliver from Portland Oregon, even from Winnetka Illinois Isabel and Brighton from Lilburn Georgia Angelo from Rockville Maryland Quinn, shave from Boulder Colorado Ben from Brooklyn New York Irish from Springfield Missouri Justin and Amelia from Ontario Conan from Hawaii come from Ann Arbor Michigan Uniform from Winnipeg Blake from Rochester. Minnesota Jack from Wesley Chapel Florida Jesse. From London England, Felicity and Peter from. Summer's New York Charlotte from Washington crossing Pennsylvania Sarah, from Richmond. Richmond Virginia Anna from Rockville Maryland Austin from San. Diego Ria from King of Prussia Pennsylvania. I love from new haven. Connecticut Lance From College Station Texas L. From Carmel Valley California from Barcelona of from Richmond Virginia Jillian from Richmond Virginia Virginia from Richmond Virginia Eva and David from tyrone Pennsylvania Emmy and landed from Belgrade Maine Nathan and Molly from Somerville Massachusetts say from Albuquerque New, Mexico Brenna from Wyoming. Ohio Marley from Syracuse New York Evelyn from Ann Arbor Michigan Emerson from Chicago Allen from Vancouver British Columbia. Khloe Georgie from London England Brooks sugarhill Georgia -puter from landesberger Pennsylvania Henry from Lehi. Utah George from Indiana, Mathilde from Brooklyn New York. With from Berthoud. Colorado Camilla from Denver Josh from Bellevue, Washington Brenda from Cincinnati, Cameron from Cape Cod Massachusetts Molina from oakville Ontario roads from Franklin Tennessee, Byron From Cape, Coral Florida cord from swift current Saskatchewan Luca and edith from Cupertino California. Dylan Xavier from Long Beach California Asha from Ann Arbor Michigan and Irish from other ASEAN Spain. We'll be back soon with more answers to your questions. Thanks for listening.