Nanotech Engineering students show that size matters

Ready to face some of the best university teams from Romania, India, and the United States, UWaterloo’s own Nanotech Engineering students took the 2016 Mobile Microrobotics Challenge. After packing up their trusted microbot, the team made the journey to Sweden, where they competed in tests of autonomy, accuracy and assembly. Members of the UW_NRG team around their equipment

The NanoRobotics Group (UW_NRG) team consists of more than 20 undergraduate students from across the Faculty of Engineering. Although the team has competed in the international challenge since it was founded in 2007, this year marks their first victory in the competition.

The UW_NRG team has a fleet of five tiny robots, and this year, they’ve selected "EMMA" to impress the judges in Stockholm. Their roboto EMMA, ElectroMagnetic MicroActuation, can manipulate the magnetic field around itself to relocate with sub-micron precision.

This accuracy made EMMA the perfect candidate for the two-tiered competition. The first challenge tested the mobility of the robot­. As  2A team member, Ciara Azam, explains:

The judges give you a route and you must complete it three times in five minutes.

The second stretch of the competition, dubbed the Microassembly Challenge, required teams to stack tiny (20μm) triangles in a structured pattern. For reference, a single strand of human hair is about five times as thick. The task simulates possible applications of Microassembly, including manipulation within a blood vessel.

For UW_NRG, the road to victory was a bumpy one. Transporting EMMA, proved to be more challenging than anticipated, according to 2B team lead, Manasa Kaniselvan.

One of our fields was lost on the day of the flight, so we had to take the photomask instead. Then, the suitcase with the robot was left behind on a connecting flight, and had to be delivered late. We also had some issues with voltage conversion in Europe. We had adaptors, but our actuators were made to operate at a much lower voltage than European sockets provide.

The future looks bright for the NanoRobotics Group. Despite a bumpy start to the competition, UW_NRG managed to bounce back and clinch a first place win in the Microassembly Challenge. In addition to taking home that prize, the group also placed second in the Mobility Challenge.

Many members of the NanoRobotics Group aren’t sure where they’ll end up after completing their degrees. But Manasa plans to continue on the nano electronic path, focusing on research and development.

So far most of my experience has been with materials science and fabrication, which has helped me develop the background in nanotechnology needed to work in nano electronics. Joining NRG was an awesome way to get a head start on picking up the skills and knowledge that I need.

As the microrobotics field continues to grow, so too does the scope of applications for robots like EMMA. If you’ve got an affection for nanotech, keep an eye on UW NRG. You could also be involved in developing the next wave of nanotech tools. 

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