Draper, Harvard University building microrobots for search and rescue operations



Engineers from Draper and Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering and Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) are collaborating to create a small climbing robot that could be used for search and rescue operations in high-risk environments.
Inspired by the movements of insects, the robots, known as microrobots, are designed to be just one centimeter in size, and are expected to be capable of object manipulation, jumping and climbing up walls—all autonomously.

The Draper and Harvard team also plans on adding built-in smart sensors with the capability to alert the bots to their body position, self-movement and environment.

“The size of our robots is expected to be quite small, in fact insect scale, but we expect them to feature advanced technologies to enable them to navigate and accomplish complex tasks proficiently,” explains Nicholas Zervoglos, an embedded systems engineer at Draper.

“The microrobots, as designed, should be capable of working in partnership with people for search and rescue, disaster relief, hazardous environment inspection and other activities.”

With funding from a recently awarded DARPA grant, the Draper and Harvard team is working under a DARPA program called SHort-Range Independent Microrobotic Platforms (SHRIMP) to develop a multi-functional millimeter-to-centimeter-scale robotics platform. The starting point is the Harvard Ambulatory MicroRobot (HAMR), which is a biologically inspired four-cm-long, 1.5 gram quadrupedal microrobot developed at the Wyss Institute and SEAS.

Engineers will use the latest in microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), additive manufacturing, piezoelectric actuators and low-power sensors to shrink the microrobot to one centimeter cubed. These advanced capabilities will allow the microrobot to manipulate, jump, sense, navigate and control itself.

The robot will be equipped with biologically-inspired friction feet that will allow it to move on rough and vertical terrain, as well as a built-in inertial measurement unit, which will help it detect its location on the ground.

The team also plans on using a “novel manufacturing process.” The team plans to develop and utilize a “wafer-scale process for rapid and repeatable mesoscale platform fabrication” to address the challenges of fabricating such mechanically complex devices like these robots with many degrees-of-freedom at the millimeter scale. 

“Smaller robotics systems could provide significant aid, but shrinking down these platforms requires significant advancement of the underlying technology,” explains Harvard’s Robert Wood, Ph.D., a pioneer in microrobotics and a lead developer of HAMR.

“In partnership with Draper, we are looking to make a contribution to the field by creating a generation of highly capable but extremely SWaP-constrained microrobotics.”

At the end of the three-year program, DARPA is planning to test the microrobots through a series of Olympic-style events. Some of the areas of interest include untethered mobility, maneuverability and dexterity.

The agency plans to use rock piling, steeplechase, biathlon and vertical ascent to test the bots.