Tiny magnetized robots become "warehouse" workers for biotech research
Scientists working with microfluids as part of biotechnology research often rely on large, clunky machines to manage the samples, but this tinkering could one day be handled by tiny robots that make the process far more efficient. Engineers at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) are working toward such a future, having developed a fleet of diminutive disc-shaped machines that function like “warehouse robots,” moving and depositing tiny droplets with great precision.
“We were inspired by the transformational impact of networked mobile robot systems on manufacturing, storage and distribution industries, such as those used to efficiently sort and transport packages at Amazon warehouses,” said Sam Emaminejad, the study’s corresponding senior author. “So, we set out to implement the same level of automation and mobility in a microfluidic setting. But our ‘factory floor’ is much smaller, about the size of your palm, and our goods, the fluid droplets, are as small as a few tenths of a millimeter.”
This factory floor is around the size of an index card and is equipped with internal structures and testing trays to accommodate tiny quantities of fluid. The robots measure around 2 mm (0.08 in) in diameter, and are manipulated by electromagnetic tiles integrated into the platform that tug them along pre-determined paths, at speeds of around 10 cm (4 in) a second.
“We programmed when and where the tiles were switched on and off to guide ferrobots through their designated routes,” said Wenzhuo Yu, a co-lead author on the paper. “This allows us to have several robots working in the same space, and at a relatively fast pace to accomplish tasks efficiently.”
In this way, the magnetic robots are capable of working together to carry out certain jobs. In one experiment, three robots collaborated to move and manipulate human plasma samples as part of a test for cancer biomarkers. They also have the ability to cleave one larger droplet into smaller, equal ones for consistent testing, deposit droplets into testing trays, and merge different fluids into single samples.
“In the same way that mobile and cross-collaborative Amazon robots transformed the logistics-based industries, our technology could transform various biotech-related industries, including medical diagnostics, drug development, genomics, and the synthesis of chemicals and materials,” said study co-corresponding and senior author Dino Di Carlo. “These fields have traditionally used refrigerator-sized ‘liquid-handling’ robots. Using our much smaller ferrobots, we have the potential to do a lot more experiments – and generate significantly more data – with the same starting materials and in the same amount of time.”
The team’s research was published in the journal Science Robotics, while you can see the tiny robots in action in the video below.