Skip to main content /TECH with /TECH

'Smallest' robot to take world by swarm


In this story:

Journey into small spaces

Covert uses possible


(CNN) -- Engineers with a government national security laboratory have created what they think could be the world's smallest robot -- a brainy, mobile machine that can stop and almost sit on a dime.

Sporting track wheels and an 8K ROM processor, it could someday perform a host of arduous tasks like disabling land mines or searching for lost humans, scientists said.

The diminutive droid, which weighs less than 1 ounce (28 grams) and is 1/4 cubic inch (4 cubic cm) in size, could be equipped with a camera, microphone and chemical micro-sensor.

"This could be the robot of the future," said Ed Heller, a project researcher with the Sandia National Laboratory, which works under the direction of the U.S. Department of Energy.

Based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the lab also developed what it calls the fastest gun in the world, a machine that propels material 20 times faster than a rifle.

Journey into small spaces

The mini-machines could travel in swarms like insects and go into locations too small for their bulkier cousins, communicating all the while with each other and human operators in a remote location.

Eventually fleets of the robots could scamper through pipes looking for chemical releases or patrol buildings in search of prowlers.

"If you take smaller ones, you can take more of them out and have better chances of finding what you are looking for," Heller said Friday.

The robot has already navigated a field of coins, puttering along at 20 inches (50 cm) a minute on track wheels similar to those on tanks. The treads give added mobility over predecessors with conventional wheels, allowing it to travel over thick carpet.

"It can't zip along as fast as a spider or ant yet. The speed was just for demonstration," Heller said. With modifications it could go up to five times faster.

Covert uses possible

The size of the robot is limited by the size of its power source. The frame must be large enough to hold three watch batteries, which drive its motors and instruments.

Instead of "Big Brother," some unsavory types might have to worry about the littlest robot; the machine could play a major role in intelligence gathering, according to the lab, which specializes in research to protect U.S. military and economic interests.

Heller and colleagues plan to outfit the mini-robot with impressive options over the next several years, including miniature video cameras and infrared or radio wireless two-way communications.

"You might have to worry about what's sitting under your desk," Heller joked.

CNNdotCOM Technofile: iRobot
December 30, 2000
Sony unveils prototype humanoid robot
November 22, 2000
Roll Your Own Robot
October 27, 2000
Sony unveils new robotic pet
October 12, 2000
More pet robots on the way
January 26, 2000
Entertainment robot is more 'byte' than bark
May 12, 1999

Sandia National Laboratories
U.S. Department of Energy

Note: Pages will open in a new browser window
External sites are not endorsed by CNN Interactive.


4:30pm ET, 4/16

Back to the top