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Autonomous Microrobot Swarms Can Catch Industrial Gas Leaks

It’s an upgrade from the beetles wearing backpacks (which is real).

Researchers at the University of Washington recently unveiled the MilliMobile, an autonomous robot about the size of a penny that runs on energy harvested from light and radio waves. 

According to the team, these microbots carry sensors and could be deployed in safety applications, like catching gas leaks, or even used to track warehouse inventory. It's a job that robots are already doing today, but most are power hungry, which means you're swapping out batteries or running back and forth from the charger - it also means more batteries in landfills.

Now, engineers have been working on various solutions, including a wireless flying robotic insect called the RoboFly that is charged with laser beams and some even strapped tiny camera backpacks to beetles. Both of these actually happened at University of Washington too, but insects aren't steerable and lasers can burn people's eyes. 

The MilliMobile weighs as much as a raisin, but has a limited range - it can go about 30 feet in an hour. The microbot has a solar panel-inspired energy harvester that can draw power even on cloudy days. An onboard light sensor helps it find light sources to harvest power. The ground needs to be fairly flat for it to work, but it can carry up to three times its own weight in equipment. 

The researchers say they were inspired by intermittent computing as the MilliMobile moves in small bursts. The microbot has been tested in various settings, including an indoor hydroponic farm, and was able to draw power even in very low light areas. The idea is to eventually deploy swarms of these data-sharing MilliMobiles to communicate safety information as well as temperature and humidity via Bluetooth.

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