A team of researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) have created tiny “warehouse logistics robots” that, they claim, could make it possible to carry out medical testing far more efficiently than current methods.

“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,” explains Sam Emaminejad, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at UCLA, of the work. “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.”

“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,” adds study co-corresponding and senior author Professor 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 2mm-diameter disc-like magnetic robots work in tandem with each other, parallelizing the work in a collaborative fashion — controlled not directly, but using electromagnetic tiles under the floor of the chip which houses them which allows them to move at a rate of around 10cm per second (around 3.94″ per second) and perform transportation, dispensing, merging, and filtering work on fluid samples.

“We programmed when and where the tiles were switched on and off to guide ferrobots through their designated routes,” said Wenzhuo Yu, a UCLA electrical and computer engineering graduate student and 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.”

The team’s work has been published under open access terms in the journal Science Robotics.

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