The robot can travel to hard-to-reach places and analyze data for diagnostic purposes. Diagram of the robotic system - as small as a human cell! (Image via MIT)
The tiniest robots developed by researchers at MIT are as small as a human egg cell and are capable of floating in the air and/or can stay suspended in liquid. This was made possible by attaching tiny 2D electronics to colloids, which are very, very small and measure one-billionth to one-millionth of a meter. They can sense the surrounding environment they're in, store data and perform tasks.
What's even better and more fascinating is that these tiny robotic systems are able to be self-powered - they don't rely on or need a battery, but instead, use photodiode semiconductors to power up both computation and memory circuits. That tiny amount of power is enough for their systems to sense information about the environment they're in, store the data in their memory and finally, have their data read out after being retrieved. The entire process is done by converting light into an electrical charge that's small, but efficient enough to keep the sensors running while storing information.
These tiny robots will have a job to fulfill sometime in the future in hard to reach places, most commonly, either in a pipeline or the human body. The main method to have a pipeline checked out for any issues is to have a work crew present, driving along the pipeline and inspecting it with costly instruments. The robotic device would only need to be inserted into the pipes at one end so it can flow through it and retrieved at the other end. The device would then provide a record of what it encountered along the way including anything that's reflective of contaminations and indicates the location of any areas that have issues in the pipes. The current devices do not have a timing circuit that could help to establish specific locations of data readings, but it's currently in development and will be added later.
The robotic devices can float on the surface and retrieve data about the environment it's in. (Image via MIT)
The device could also be passed through the human digestive tract to diagnose and find any signs of inflammation or any potential diseases in the digestive system. It can even float in the air to measure compounds inside a chemical processor or refinery. Once it has been retrieved, information collected on the sensors can be downloaded and analyzed.
In the future, the team is hoping to add in communications to allow data to be delivered without the need for any physical contact with the device.
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