Tiny Magnetic Robots Might One Day Work On Equally Tiny Assembly Lines

We've successfully engineered giant robot arms for building cars on an assembly line. But smaller mass-produced items—like electronics—still mostly rely on the nimble hands and fingers of a human. Building and controlling robots on a very small scale is still very difficult, but a company called SRI International may have found a clever solution using magnets.

SRI isn't the first to manipulate a tiny robot using magnets, but they are the first to find a way to control then individually even when there's a swarm of them moving about. The secret is to deploy the robots on a circuit board where the magnetic fields can be precisely localized so that each one can be controlled without affecting others nearby. And from the looks of it, the new technique is remarkably effective.

Not only can the robots be maneuvered with impressive precision, they can also zip around with impressive speed for their size. And while the robots might not be strong, the advantage is that they're small and lightweight enough to work almost anywhere they can be affected by a magnetic field. So while they're assembling a piece of electronics, for example, they could easily crawl around inside it during assembly, speeding up the whole process.

And more importantly, if you've ever stepped on an ant, you have a pretty good idea of how easy it would be stop one of these robots in its tracks if it ever tried to rebel. [SRI via IEEE Spectrum]