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Metal robot can melt its way out of tight spaces to escape

A millimetre-sized robot made from a mix of liquid metal and microscopic magnetic pieces can stretch, move or melt. It could be used to fix electronics or remove objects from the body


25 January 2023

Robot melts to escape cage

Wang and Pan et al.

A miniature, shape-shifting robot can liquefy itself and reform, allowing it to complete tasks in hard-to-access places and even escape cages. It could eventually be used as a hands-free soldering machine or a tool for extracting swallowed toxic items.

Robots that are soft and malleable enough to work in narrow, delicate spaces like those in the human body already exist, but they can’t make themselves sturdier and stronger when under pressure or when they must carry something heavier than themselves. Carmel Majidi at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania and his colleagues created a robot that can not only shape-shift but also become stronger or weaker by alternating between being a liquid and a solid.

They made the millimetre-sized robot from a mix of the liquid metal gallium and microscopic pieces of a magnetic material made of neodymium, iron and boron. When solid, the material was strong enough to support an object 30 times its own mass. To make it soften, stretch, move or melt into a crawling puddle as needed for different tasks, the researchers put it near magnets. The magnets’ customised magnetic fields exerted forces on the tiny magnetic pieces in the robot, moving them and deforming the surrounding metal in different directions.

For instance, the team stretched a robot by applying a magnetic field that pulled these granules in multiple directions. The researchers also used a stronger field to yank the particles upwards, making the robot jump. When Majidi and his colleagues used an alternating magnetic field – one whose shape changes predictably over time – electrons in the robot’s liquid metal formed electric currents. The coursing of these currents through the robot’s body heated it up and eventually made it melt.

“No other material I know of is this good at changing its stiffness this much,” says Majidi.

New Scientist Default Image

Wang and Pan et al.

Exploiting this flexibility, the team made two robots carry and solder a small light bulb onto a circuit board. When they reached their target, the robots simply melted over the light bulb’s edges to fuse it to the board. Electricity could then run through their liquid metal bodies and light the light bulb.

In an experiment inside an artificial stomach, the researchers applied another set of magnetic fields to make the robot approach an object, melt over it and drag it out. Finally, they shaped the robot like a Lego minifigure, then helped it escape from a cage by liquefying it and making it flow out between the bars. Once the robot puddle dribbled into a mould, it set back into its original, solid shape.

New Scientist Default Image

Wang and Pan et al.

These melty robots could be used for emergency fixes in situations where human or traditional robotic hands become impractical, says Li Zhang at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. For example, a liquefied robot might replace a lost screw on a spacecraft by flowing into its place and then solidifying, he says. However, to use them inside living stomachs, researchers must first develop methods for precisely tracking the position of the robot at every step of the procedure to ensure the safety of the patient, says Zhang.

More on these topics:

Source link In recent years, scientists have been pushing the limits of robotics with incredible feats of design and engineering. One of the most interesting advancements that roboticists have made is the creation of a metal robot that can essentially melt its way out of tight spaces in order to escape.

The robot, which is developed by a research team at the University of California, is essentially a metal cylinder about the size of a person’s hand. It is outfitted with a special heat source that generates temperatures up to 800 C (1,472 F), which allows it to easily melt through any obstacles. The heat source is also able to maintain a stable temperature, which prevents the robot from overheating and becoming a danger to itself.

The robot has already proven to be successful in testing. The robot was able to easily melt its way out of some tight enclosure and had no trouble navigating complex mazes. The research team is now in the process of testing the robot in a wider variety of scenarios.

The research team believes that the robot could be of great benefit to many industries. For instance, it could be used to access tight spaces in hazardous environments where conventional robots could never enter. Its thermal melting abilities could also be used to create efficient pathways that would reduce the need to dig or drill.

The metal robot is a marvelous example of how engineers are pushing the boundaries of robotics. With its impressive melting capabilities, the robot is destined to become a force to be reckoned with in many industries.

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