Robots the size of a human egg cell, with the ability to sense their environment, have been created by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). It’s hoped that they can eventually be used to monitor pipelines in the oil and gas industry to check for leaks and other issues. It’s also possible that they could be used for diagnostic purposes, by passing through the digestive track to check for inflammation or other signs of disease. 

These robots consist of tiny electronic circuits made from two-dimensional materials, which piggyback on miniscule particles, known as colloids. These insoluble particles can be anywhere from one millionth to one billionth of a metre across. Their tiny size enables them to stay suspended indefinitely in liquid or air.

Senior author of the study Michael Strano said the research team had wanted to find a way to graft complete electronic circuits onto colloidal particles.

“Colloids can access environments and travel in ways that other materials can’t,” he said.

While they may be the smallest robots ever, they have the ability to store data and complete computational tasks. They are self-powered by a simple photodiode, which provides them with enough electricity to function. This means they don’t require an internal battery or an external power source.

Currently, leaks and other issues within pipelines are found when crews physically drive along them using expensive equipment. In theory, these new robots could be inserted into one end of a pipeline, carried along with the flow, and then removed at the other end. During that time, they would have recorded the conditions they encountered, such as contaminants or the location of problem areas.

Right now the devices don’t have a timing circuit with the ability to indicate the location of the data readings. However, this is something the research team is working on.

Other research teams have been working on creating similar robots; however, Strano said their focus is on developing ways to control movement. For example, may teams have worked on creating tail-like flagellae; inspired by the way some microbial organisms propel themselves. Strano said he believes this isn’t the best approach as these movement systems are mostly used for local-scale positioning rather than for significant movement. He suggested it’s more important to make these robots functional rather than mobile.

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