ENABLING HARDWARE TECHNOLOGIES FOR AUTONOMY IN TINY ROBOTS: CONTROL, INTEGRATION, ACTUATION
Abshire, Pamela A
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The last two decades have seen many exciting examples of tiny robots from a few cm3 to less than one cm3. Although individually limited, a large group of these robots has the potential to work cooperatively and accomplish complex tasks. Two examples from nature that exhibit this type of cooperation are ant and bee colonies. They have the potential to assist in applications like search and rescue, military scouting, infrastructure and equipment monitoring, nano-manufacture, and possibly medicine. Most of these applications require the high level of autonomy that has been demonstrated by large robotic platforms, such as the iRobot and Honda ASIMO. However, when robot size shrinks down, current approaches to achieve the necessary functions are no longer valid. This work focused on challenges associated with the electronics and fabrication. We addressed three major technical hurdles inherent to current approaches: 1) difficulty of compact integration; 2) need for real-time and power-efficient computations; 3) unavailability of commercial tiny actuators and motion mechanisms. The aim of this work was to provide enabling hardware technologies to achieve autonomy in tiny robots. We proposed a decentralized application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC) where each component is responsible for its own operation and autonomy to the greatest extent possible. The ASIC consists of electronics modules for the fundamental functions required to fulfill the desired autonomy: actuation, control, power supply, and sensing. The actuators and mechanisms could potentially be post-fabricated on the ASIC directly. This design makes for a modular architecture. The following components were shown to work in physical implementations or simulations: 1) a tunable motion controller for ultralow frequency actuation; 2) a nonvolatile memory and programming circuit to achieve automatic and one-time programming; 3) a high-voltage circuit with the highest reported breakdown voltage in standard 0.5 μm CMOS; 4) thermal actuators fabricated using CMOS compatible process; 5) a low-power mixed-signal computational architecture for robotic dynamics simulator; 6) a frequency-boost technique to achieve low jitter in ring oscillators. These contributions will be generally enabling for other systems with strict size and power constraints such as wireless sensor nodes.