Ferrobots – Miniaturized warehouse robots for microfluidic logistics

Ferrobots, developed by UCLA engineers, are tiny warehouse robots built for automated microfluidic logistics. These ferrobotic systems are disc-shaped magnets about 2 mm in diameter, designed to work together to precisely move and manipulate tiny droplets of blood or other fluids.

Called “ferrobots” as they are powered by magnetism, they can also automate medical diagnosis. For example, for consistent testing, the robots can cleave one large droplet of fluid into smaller drops, which are equal in volume. Also, they can move droplets into preloaded test trays to check for signs of illness.

The ferrobots can be programmed collaboratively to perform massively parallelized and sequential fluidic operations on small-length scales. They can perform several automated tasks within a microfluidic architecture, including sample collection, dispensing (to ensure uniform sample volume), delivery, and merging (with the aid of an electrocoalescence electrode pair) and mixing for sensing. Electromagnetic tiles in the chip pull the ferrobots along desired tracks to control the motion of the robots, much like using magnets to move metal chess pieces from under a chessboard.

“We were inspired by the transformational impact of networked mobile robot systems on manufacturing, storage, and distribution industries, such as those used to sort and transport packages at Amazon warehouses efficiently. So, we set out to implement the same level of automation and mobility in a microfluidic setting. But our’ factory floor’ is much smaller, about the size of your palm, and our goods, the fluid droplets, are as small as a few tenths of a millimeter,” said Sam Emaminejad, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering and the study’s corresponding senior author.

The “factory floor,” as shown in this video, is an index card-sized chip with internal structures that help manipulate the fluid droplets transported by the robots.

“In the same way that mobile and cross-collaborative Amazon robots transformed the logistics-based industries, our technology could transform various biotech-related sectors, including medical diagnostics, drug development, genomics, and the synthesis of chemicals and materials. These fields have traditionally used refrigerator-sized ‘liquid-handling’ robots. Using our ferrobots, we have the potential to do a lot more experiments – and generate significantly more data – with the same starting materials and in the same amount of time,” said study co-corresponding and senior author Dino Di Carlo, UCLA’s Armond and Elena Hairapetian Professor in Engineering and Medicine.

In one of their experiments, the researchers showed how an automated network of three robots could work together to move and manipulate droplets of human plasma samples on a chip, in search of molecular markers indicating the presence of cancer.

“We programmed when and where the tiles were switched on and off to guide ferrobots through their designated routes. This allows us to have several robots working in the same space, and at a relatively fast pace to accomplish tasks efficiently,” said Wenzhuo Yu, a UCLA electrical and computer engineering graduate student and a co-lead author on the paper.

The robots were moving at 10 centimeters per second and in the experiments performed more than 10,000 cyclic motions for 24 hours. Other functions, such as the dispensing, merging, and filtering of fluid samples, were demonstrated in addition to transportation as ferrobots interacted with chip structures. UCLA Nanoelectronics Research Facility manufactured the robots and their chips. A patent application has been filed on the technology.

UCLA Samueli is a tightly knit community of 190 full-time faculty members, over 6,000 graduate students, and 40,000 active alumni. Also known as the internet’s birthplace, UCLA Samueli took the first steps in many other fields, from artificial intelligence to reverse osmosis, from mobile communications to human prosthesis. UCLA Samueli ranks consistently among U.S. public engineering schools in the Top 10. The online master’s program at the school is ranked No.1 by the U.S. News & report from around the world.