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Robots to the Rescue

Robots to the Rescue

At UT Arlington’s Texas Microfactory, an interdisciplinary group of researchers creates and pilot-produces tiny robots that could transform the defense industry. Automation and Robotics Research Institute Director Harry Stephanou, who oversees the effort, says the versatile devices can be used for surveillance, crowd control, intelligence gathering, border management, and other functions.

How do these microrobots work?

They come with two mechanical styles, discrete and continuous. Discrete models tend to be “bigger”—a few centimeters—with mechanical parts like legs, tiny motors, and batteries. Continuous models are usually smaller and manufactured in what appears to be a single piece, though in fact they’re composite structures folded into techno-origamis. Their power may come from acoustic or radio waves since they’re too small to carry batteries.

How small are they?

They’re measured in three sizes: centimeters, millimeters, and micrometers. A human hair is about 150 micrometers. The micron level seems to be the sweet spot with the greatest demand right now.

Why is manufacturing so important?

So often there’s a disconnect between academic research and the realities of manufacturing. Just because you can make something in a lab that works doesn’t mean you can quickly and cheaply turn out 100 or 500 or 1,000 or more units. Our emphasis isn’t just on researching microrobotics. We focus on how to make them and many other microsystems a viable industry in the United States.

How can the robots impact the economy?

The microsystems industry is a way to create tens of thousands of jobs because it is the economy of the future. The Defense Department has invested almost $11 million in microsystems at the Texas Microfactory, with more likely to come. We’re only just now scratching the surface of what has enormous economic potential. In my view, we aren’t just one of the front-runners. We are the world university leader in manufacturable microsystems.