SHRIMP Project: Is rescue mission the only purpose of DARPA’s insect-sized robot?

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DARPA, The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency of United States which solely works for the technological reinforcement of military has recently revealed the details of their latest project ‘SHRIMP’, which is about the insect-sized robots that are said to be designed for the purpose of disaster relief.

Stands for the SHort-Range Independent Microrobotic Platforms, SHRIMP is working to develop and demonstrate multi-functional micro-to-milli robotic platforms for use in natural and critical disaster scenarios. “Whether in a natural disaster scenario, a search and rescue mission, a hazardous environment, or other critical relief situation, robots have the potential to provide much needed aide and support,” said Dr. Ronald Polcawich, a DARPA program manager in the Microsystems Technology Office (MTO). “However, there are a number of environments that are inaccessible for larger robotic platforms. Smaller robotics systems could provide significant aide, but shrinking down these platforms requires significant advancement of the underlying technology.”

In order to find a way into the tech advancement that would lead DARPA successfully create micro-to-milli size robots with the ability to work as expected, SHRIMP has also opened a competition inviting tech-savvys from all over the world to work for it by bringing innovative ideas that would help carrying out the plan.

As proposed by DARPA, the plan is to seek innovative proposals for the development of micro-to-milli (insect scale) robotic technologies. SHRIMP will develop and demonstrate, through a series of Olympic-themed events, multi-functional mm-to-cm scale robotic platforms with a focus on untethered mobility, maneuverability, and dexterity. To achieve this goal, SHRIMP will also provide foundational research in the area of micro-actuator materials and energy efficient power systems for extremely SWaP-constrained microrobotic systems. It is expected that such advances will be enabling for applications including search and rescue, disaster relief, hazardous environment inspection, in-flight control of aerodynamic platforms, steerable optics, and prosthetics.

The need for such plan according to DARPA has come from the experiences in which robots bigger in size, used in the rescue operations, failed to complete the task or faced hard times in completing the operation. The major obstacle deemed responsible for the failure was the size of the robots that limited its reach to the sensitive areas. But reducing the size of a robot that is specifically designed for the purpose of disaster relief is challenging as a robot of such purpose has to have an ability to be able to navigate, lift weight, fly, pull, push, run, hide, record and whatnot as the situation demands.

Now to make a robot of an insect-size be able to perform all the aforementioned tasks is one hell of a challenge as the machines required to run a robot of such cadre can’t be fitted in a size that small. Actuator requires a control signal and a source of energy; all of these mechanics are hard to figure out for SHRIMP to work. Technology has yet to discover and innovate such mechanism that would allow a insect-sized machine be able to actually perform rescue operations.

The Olympic-themed event of SHRIMP consists of a series of events that would test the ability of robots to high jump, low jump, weight-lift, tug of war, rock piling and few more activities required for the plan of easy and successful future rescue operation.

But is rescue operation the only motive of DARPA’s SHRIMP? An agency solely working for the development of emerging technologies for US military use; why would DARPA invest the total amount of $32 million – or maybe more if needed – on a plan that is only said to be about disaster relief?

If you think about what else a tiny insect-sized robot could do? Your mind would run a dozen other things that can be achieved with the help of a insect-sized robot. That’s right! Such robots could play a great role in spying too.

Learnt from the ‘Hated in the Nation’, an episode of Black Mirror show on Netflix, in which tiny robotic honey bees were shown. Named as autonomous drone insects (ADIs) in the show, those bees were created to overcome the shortage of real honey bees and its affect on the environment. But this hi-tech majestic invention turns into a nightmare when someone hacks the robotic-bee system and use it to kill people. Because of the advantage of its size, robot bee could get into anywhere it was intended to be sent to, without any hassle or obstacle in its way.

RELATED: These High-Tech Advancements Predicted by ‘Black Mirror” are Just Around The Corner Now

Coming back to reality, there is actually a robo-fly which was created by Harvard Scientists back in 2013; the purpose was said to be same as SHRIMP’s – for rescue missions. However, the only thing a robo-fly could do is to take off for a bit. Other than that, no progress was reported in that project later.

Now here comes again the SHRIMP by DARPA, trying to find a tech-way to kick-start the robot insects’ project again and reach to the desired point where the insect-robot would be able to not just fly, but navigate, dodge, co-ordinate with other robots, catch radio signals, lift weight and do wonders that we can’t imagine for now.

But the fact can’t be ignored that such robots once created could do a lot other jobs too. And God forbid if they go into the wrong hands, anything would be possible. We hope, DARPA got a plan for a world without war.


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 – The article is author’s personal opinion.

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