Engineers develop laser-controlled, cell-sized robots

Advances in robotics are often looked at through the lens of our own biology. Is a new humanoid robot’s gripper gentle enough to safely give a handshake? Can it keep its balance as well as a toddler?

Researchers from Penn Engineering and Cornell are looking through this lens at an even more fundamental level: creating robotic systems that are on the scale of biological cells.

A square-shaped robot moves back and forth
One of the researchers’ robots next to a paramecium. (Image: Penn Engineering)

They have created the first microscopic robots that are made with semiconductor processing and can be controlled—and made to walk—with standard electronic signals. Roughly the size of a paramecium, they provide a template for building even more complex versions that can be mass produced and may someday travel through the human body.

Marc Miskin, assistant professor in Penn Engineering’s Department of Electrical and Systems Engineering, began working on these robots while a postdoctoral researcher under Itai Cohen, professor of physics, and Paul McEuen, the John A. Newman Professor of Physical Science, both faculty in Cornell University’s College of Arts and Sciences.

The three have now led a study, published in the journal Naturethat outlines how these microscopic robots can be assembled and controlled.

“I remember looking into a microscope as a kid and being blown away by all these amazing tiny creatures,” says Miskin. “Biology works through microscopic machines. Even you are essentially a giant machine made out of tiny robots called cells.”

“Nature shows there’s no reason we can’t build something incredibly small and incredibly complex,” he says. “The question is how can we do it? How can humans build systems that duplicate what biological cells are doing, even in some small way?”

Read more at Penn Engineering.