Millimeter-scale Robots: Small in Stature, Big in Capability

February 2010
Topics: Artificial Intelligence
With the success of unmanned aviation systems generating demand for battlefield robots of every size and shape, MITRE researcher Mark Taczak offers an overview of the next stage in autonomous robotic platforms: millirobots the size of large insects.
small robot

Imagine you are a soldier in a hostile environment—behind enemy lines, cut off from your allies, and with no idea what lies around the corner, in the next room, or over the hill. You reach into your pocket and pull out a handful of tiny reconnaissance robots, turn them on, and watch them scurry away. Several minutes later, your heads-up display starts showing you snapshots from one of the robots, your earpiece is feeding you live audio from another, and a third is telling you there are warm bodies nearby. Armed with this information, you manage to plot a safe path back to your comrades-in-arms, where you regroup and return to safety.

Although it may sound farfetched, this science fiction scenario is rapidly approaching reality. Researchers, including a team at MITRE, are developing the first generation of prototypes for autonomous, ground-based robotic platforms 30- to 60-millimeters in size. Developing and demonstrating such tiny, millimeter-scale robots, or millirobots, is no academic matter—demand within the military for smaller, lighter, and cheaper robots continues to grow as autonomous systems become more pervasive and critical to the success of ongoing and future operations.

In fact, unmanned aircraft systems have become so popular among our troops that some missions have been cancelled when unmanned aircraft were not available to support them. And with the successful deployment of ground-based robots—such as iRobot's Packbot—that can defuse bombs and disarm traps, soldiers are understandably reluctant to attempt such dangerous tasks without a robotic assistant.

Swarm Control

While the "force multiplication" afforded by robotic systems is advantageous and takes soldiers out of harm's way, the deployment of battlefield robots has in no way eliminated the need for trained human operators. Improving the degree of cooperation, coordination, and autonomy among larger numbers of robotic systems (often called "swarms"), and thus decreasing the number of humans required, is one way to reduce the need for additional training and staff.

But command and control of robotic swarms is not a trivial problem. It can be difficult to test swarms outside of a simulated environment due to the large numbers of robots involved. The small size and low cost of millirobots make them perfect experimental platforms for exploring novel command and control and reconnaissance strategies.

Millirobots also can put key intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance resources into the hands of individual soldiers. The portability and inherent covertness of millirobots will increase the effectiveness of dismounted warfighters without bogging them down with additional equipment. If every soldier carried a "bag of bugs" that could be scattered at key points to watch for intruders or sent ahead to determine if that trash can is actually filled with explosives, then time, resources, and, most important, lives would be saved.

Cheap and Customized

One of the goals of MITRE's millirobot research is to develop a standard, modular, and miniature robot platform that can be produced inexpensively and in large quantities. These platforms then can be customized to address specific mission needs or made available to other research groups as a collaborative research tool for exploring new algorithms or strategies for autonomous mobile sensors, distributed command and control, or self-organizing networks.

The cost of millirobots can be kept low through extensive use of commercial-off-the-shelf technologies and a modular approach to construction. This enables the robots to be fitted with sensors, communications devices, or other payloads depending on their intended application. For example, first-generation prototypes only 60 millimeters in size use miniature electric motors, rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, and even a dedicated robotic control board the size of a quarter—all readily available in the commercial marketplace.

These early prototypes already have demonstrated a remarkable ability to overcome obstacles even without sensors or sophisticated on-board processing. In the future, these millirobots will be smaller, faster, and more robust, with additional sensors and on-board intelligence, plus short- and long-range communications systems.

Military Impact

The military's research labs also are interested in millirobots—both on the ground and in the air. The Army Research Lab's Micro Autonomous Systems Technology program seeks to integrate "microsystem mechanics, microelectronics, and processing for autonomous operation" to "demonstrate multi-functional, mobile microsystems that will enhance the warfighter's tactical situational awareness in urban and complex terrain," while a DARPA-funded project recently demonstrated a robot that looks—and flies—like a hummingbird.

It is difficult to deny that robotic systems have had an extraordinary impact on the way military operations are conducted in the 21st century, and the need and demand across the military for tiny, autonomous systems like millirobots is growing. The popularity and effectiveness of robotic systems even have led Congress to mandate that one-third of all deep-strike aircraft and one-third of all ground combat vehicles be unmanned by this year and 2015, respectively. While no such requirements currently exist for millirobots, the benefits they can and will provide mean that it won't be long before they are crawling, flying, or hopping across the battlefield of tomorrow.

—by Mark Taczak

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