July 13, 1999
(CNN) -- It's people versus robots in the latest "Star Wars"
movie, as Jedi knights battle the mechanized minions of the
galaxy's Dark Side.
But in Japan, robots aren't the enemy. They are the good
guys. They are also getting smaller, a lot smaller.
Scientists in Tokyo have invented what may be the world's
tiniest robot, measuring just 10 millimeters long and
weighing less than half a gram.
Researchers hope to use the micro-robots to repair equipment
in nuclear and thermal plants. The device could maneuver in
tight crevices or lock onto damaged parts.
The robots, which can crawl into the tiniest gaps around
bundles of pipes, are expected to speed up inspection and
repairs at electric and nuclear power plants because they
can be sent in while the plants keep running.
Scientists are working to add new functions to them so the
robots can climb up and down a pipe while connected to other
machines. They also plan to develop robots with motors and
U.S. government engineers have developed miniature
surveillance robots that can hover around a room. And NASA
engineers are working on a "spacecraft on a chip," says
Barry Hebert, manager of micro- and nano-technology
development at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
"That means miniaturizing every part of a spacecraft, from
brains to instruments to devices," he says. "Right now we've
got systems on a chip and right now we're putting the
components together to do that."
But for now, the Japanese may hold the record for the
tiniest robot in operation.
The idea for tiny robots began 10 years ago as a cooperative
research project between the government and Mitsubishi
Electric Corp., Sumitomo Electric Industries Ltd. and
Matsushita Research Institute Tokyo, Inc. under the
government's 25 billion yen ($206 million) "micro-machine"
project, said Koji Hirose, spokesman for the Ministry of
International Trade and Industry.
Despite the big plans, the micro-machines are still years
from widespread use.
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