What Can You Do With a Bubble-Bot?


By Tim Moran

There's just something about robots. As I wander the Web for looking for interesting tidbits to write about, I must confess that my eye is always drawn to stories about new technologies or developments in the world of robotics--to which this Baseline search-results page (tinyurl.com/bw7d7gx) will attest.

The latest from the land of mechanical entities comes from a report in IEEE Spectrum (tinyurl.com/87wuyx8) about work being done at the University of Hawaii at Manoa by Aaron Ohta, an assistant professor of electrical engineering there. According to the story, Ohta and his crew have devised a way of creating "non-mechanical microbots quite literally out of thin air, using robots made of bubbles with engines made of lasers."

Can you believe that? Can you even understand that? If you want to know more about what these microbots do and how they work, read the Spectrum piece, which provides information about saline solutions, a 400 mW 980nm laser and fine-tipped syringes. It's all quite fascinating.

There are a couple of things that really intrigue me about the research. First, one of the experiments Ohta and crew conducted was getting the bubble-bots to manipulate very fine objects--in this case, pushing glass beads around to form the letters "UH" (University of Hawaii).

That's fun stuff and nice for the lab, but what about real-life applications? What will these microbots eventually be able to do, that's what I want to know.

The Spectrum reports tells us: "The researchers are currently investigating how to use teams of tiny bubbles to cooperatively transport and assemble microbeads into complex shapes. ... Eventually, it may be possible to conjure swarms of microscopic bubble robots out of nothing, set them to work building microstructures with an array of thermal lasers, and then when they're finished, give each one a little pop to wipe it completely out of existence without any mess or fuss."

There are very few areas of technology that are as fast-moving and fascinating as robotics. There are new developments such as Ohta's literally every day, and many of them are truly mind-boggling. Much of this research is paying off in seriously cool and compelling applications in manufacturing, medicine, industry, the military and the like. But what about at home?

Look around you: See anything robotic? I surely don't. With all this high-tech experimentation that results in bubble-bots, liquid robots, aerial robots, "lovotics" robots (this one is a pip), baby robots and, one of my faves, cyborg rats, the best application they can come up with for home is the Roomba?

I won't be happy until I have a squeeze bottle containing mango-scented bubble-bots that will swarm around my head and shampoo my hair. Then I'd wash those bots right out of my hair and, poof, they're gone--no muss, no fuss.