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Force-sensing microrobots probe cells

15 Oct 2014

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A side view of the microrobot next to a U.S. penny.

A side view of the microrobot next to a U.S. penny

Researchers from Purdue University have established the design of microforce sensing mobile microrobot geared towards biological research and medical applications.

Microrobots small enough to interact with cells already exist. However, there is no easy, inexpensive way to measure the small forces applied to cells by the robots. Measuring these microforces is essential to precisely control the bots and to use them to study cells.

"What is needed is a useful tool biologists can use every day and at low cost," said David Cappelleri, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Purdue University.

Researchers have designed and built a "vision-based microforce sensor end-effector," which is attached to the microrobots like a tiny proboscis. A camera is used to measure the probe's displacement while it pushes against cells, allowing a simple calculation that reveals the force applied.

A microforce-sensing mobile microrobot juxtaposed against a U.S. penny.

A microrobot juxtaposed against a U.S. penny.

The approach could make it possible to easily measure the "micronewtons" of force applied at the cellular level. Such a tool is needed to better study cells and to understand how they interact with microforces. The forces can be used to transform cells into specific cell lines, including stem cells for research and medical applications. The measurement of microforces also can be used to study how cells respond to certain medications and to diagnose disease.

Microrobots used in research are controlled with magnetic fields to guide them into position.

Current methods for measuring the forces applied by microrobots are impractical and expensive, requiring an atomic force microscope or cumbersome sensors with complex designs that are difficult to manufacture. The latest system combined with the microrobot is about 700µ2, and the researchers are working to create versions about 500µ2. To put this scale into perspective, the mini-machine is about one-half the size of the "E" in "One Cent" on a U.S. penny. "We are currently working on scaling it down," Cappelleri said.

Future research also may focus on automating the microrobots.




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