First Phase (June 1997)
The main goal of the MINIMAN project is the development of a new microrobot system with a size of a few cubic centimetres which must take over the high-precision operations, assisted by a sensoric process monitoring and the appropriate control. The whole process takes place under a microscope equipped with a CCD-camera, in order to ensure the feedback for the system control based on the visual information. The realization of the above tasks demands for high-precision positioning (up to 10 nm) and an unrestricted freedom of movement in the working space. Advanced and very precise actuators with small dimensions, simple mechanical construction and high reliability must be developed to give the robot both of these capabilities. Specific endeffectors (different grippers, needles, pipettes, glue applicators, electric probes or biosensoric tips) and a simple concept for the tool exchange should also be available.
Because the capabilities of the human hand are very restricted, smart micromanipulation systems for high-precision manipulation are becoming of great interest in medicine and industry. In medical research for example it is often necessary to pick up a single cell, which is marked by colour, and to carry it to an apparature which is used for further analysis of the cell.
Another task is the insertion of microneedle enzyme electrodes into biological environments, e.g. for the detection of oxygen, glucose and lactate. In industry, high-precision manipulation systems are needed especially for the mass production of hybrid microsystems, which consist of different microcomponents. The transition from a few hybrid microsystems assembled manually to mass products with high quality is only attainable by automated assembly systems. Another application is testing of integrated circuits which can be performed by exchanging the manipulation tool by an eletric probe.
Second Phase (November 1998 - November 2001)
The field of micromanipulation and microrobotics is in its initialisation stage and there are only a few industries active within this area so far. The major motivation for carrying out this project is that – regarding the wide variety of application fields from a high-precision and fast assembly of mechanical microcomponents in industry to the handling of cells in medical or biological applications – adequate micromanipulation systems promise very high returns.
The main idea of the MINIMAN project is the development of a smart microrobot with 5 degrees of freedom and a size of a few cm3, capable of moving and manipulating by the use of tube-shaped and multilayered piezoactuators. Controlled by visual and force/tactile sensor information, the microrobot will be able to perform manipulations with a motion resolution down to 10nm in a telemanipulated or semi-automated mode, and so it will free humans from the tedious task of having to handle minuscule objects directly. Equipped with micromachined grippers, the robot can take over high-precise grasping, transport, manipulation and positioning of mechanical or biological microobjects, under a light microscope or within the vacuum chamber of a scanning electron microscope. A powerful computer system using inexpensive PC-compatible hardware components will ensure the robot operation in real-time.
The flexibility of the MINIMAN concept due to the integration of positioning and manipulating units into a microrobot will be of great interest for different industrial users. However, there is a gap between the needs of the industry attempting to take-up the achievements of microsystem technology and to take a lot of different miniaturised products to the market and the performance of the existing approaches for micromanipulation. To come up to the high expectations for advanced micromanipulation systems, a longer-term industrial vision is necessary. The MINIMAN collaboration, including well-established European research institutes and companies, will contribute to solve this problem. The academic proposers are among the leading European institutes in the field of microsystem technology and advanced robot systems. The industrial proposers are active in the field of micromanipulation and microassembly and play an important part in their respective fields of business.
The proposed idea is to a great extent completely new. The innovative character of the project is obvious as flexible microrobot systems incorporating different kinds of grippers, visual and force/tactile sensors, and telemanipulated or semi-automated control approaches for microrobots do currently not exist. After the development of all the mentioned components and their integration to a microrobot system, the performance of the MINIMAN microrobot will be evaluated by means of the following demonstrations:
- handling and assembly of micromechanical parts under a light microscope,
- handling and assembly of micromechanical parts in the vacuum chamber of a scanning electron microscope,
- grasping, moving and sorting of biological cells under a water-resistant optical lens. The industrial microrobot applications will be specified by Philips Research Laboratories acting as a user within the Consortium.
All three application fields are very different in terms of dimension or nature of the objects to be handled and in terms of operating environment, hence they will enable a thorough evaluation of the project results.
To summarise, the MINIMAN approach does not have immediate short-term market expediency but is expected to lead to an innovative micromanipulation technology with a clearly identifiable route for its take-up by industry. Moreover, the development of the individual microrobot components will additionally be delivering a lot of new information and understanding for further promising technologies and neighbouring application fields.