If there is anything the future is lacking, it’s robots the size of Chiclets. Draper, working under a grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is creating centimeter-sized robots, for future use in rescue work. The project is named “SHort-Range Independent Microrobotic Platforms,” or “SHRIMP” for short.

And short is the nature of the game. SHRIMP is based on the 4 cm long, 1.5 g Harvard Ambulatory MicroRobot (HAMR), and wants to shrink it down to a single cubic centimeter. That will require microelectromechanical systems, 3D printing, piezoelectric actuators and, this is crucial, low-power sensors. Once all of that is in place, Draper claims the microbot will be able to jump, sense, navigate and control itself. The design will rely on feet inspired by living creatures to give it extra friction on rough and vertical terrain, and inertial measurement to detect where it is on the ground.

“The microrobotic platform capabilities enabled by SHRIMP will provide the DoD with significantly more access and capability to operate in small spaces that are practically inaccessible to today’s state-of-the-art robotic platforms,” declared DARPA in the proposer’s day note. “Such capability will have impact in search and rescue, disaster relief, infrastructure inspection, and equipment maintenance, among other operations.”

The exact “how” of what these robots will do in disaster relief, inspection, maintenance or other operations is yet to be determined, and will largely hinge on the sensors that can be fit to the platform. The most useful thing a small robot can do is get into a space and send information back to humans about that space, but that’s hardly the only metric to evaluate the platform.

As part of the SHRIMP program, DARPA will have the robot designs compete through a series of events modeled after the Olympics. These include high jump, long jump, weightlifting, shot put, tug of war, rock piling, steeplechase, biathlon, vertical ascent — all ways to find out what useful tasks tiny robots can do.

There’s a world of speculation between a dime-sized robot that can pile rocks and a useful military tool, but the fact that DARPA is invested in the technology as a platform suggests that, should the technology get there, the design will have some unexpected utility. In the meantime, DARPA’s interest suggests there’s good odds on a future market for sensors designed for dice-sized robots.

Kelsey Atherton blogs about military technology for C4ISRNET, Fifth Domain, Defense News, and Military Times. He previously wrote for Popular Science, and also created, solicited, and edited content for a group blog on political science fiction and international security.

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