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These Adorable Tiny Robots Can Pull Up To 2,000 Times Their Weight

That's like you pulling a whale!

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Scientists at Stanford University have built miniature robots that mimic the nimble techniques of geckos and inchworms, allowing them to heave incredible heft.

Lizard-influenced technology made headlines last year when Elliot Hawkes (right), part of the university's Biomimetics and Dexterous Manipulation Lab, scaled a wall using gecko-inspired adhesives.

"That was the initial spark," researcher David Christensen (left) told BuzzFeed. While microrobots tend to not really be capable of human-scale feats, he said, the team borrowed some elements from that project and shrank them to make a “surprisingly capable little guy."

This microtug bot can lift more than 100 times its weight.

Biomimetics and Dexterous Manipulation Lab, Stanford University / Via youtube.com

That's comparable to a person climbing up a glass building while carrying an elephant. (That electric critter is the StickyBot, the lab's first robot gecko.)

Then there's the µTug bot, which can drag a mug of coffee — and up to 2,000 times its weight.

The secret: Tiny rubber hairs on the robot's belly (right) form a gecko adhesive. Gecko toe pads have microscopic hairs called setae, which then split into millions of smaller hairs and — with the help of an attractive force — help it adhere to a surface.

Similar to an inchworm, the bot alternates between lifting part of its body to accelerate forward...

...and plopping it back down on the ground to grip and pull.

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Research groups are keen on tapping into skills found in nature.

Karen Ladenheim / Biomimetics and Dexterous Manipulation Lab, Stanford University / Via bdml.stanford.edu

Take ants, for instance, which can pull a hundred times their weight — and putter seamlessly to accomplish massive tasks.

Last year Harvard researchers revealed swarm robots that can self-assemble to form shapes. Christensen and Hawkes' team hope to contribute to that vision with robots that can apply ant-like forces.

Small robots like these could be immensely handy if employed in emergency situations.

Karen Ladenheim / Biomimetics and Dexterous Manipulation Lab, Stanford University / Via bdml.stanford.edu

In the case of a burning building, for instance, a big, more expensive robot moves from room to room and is costly to replace. ”What’s great about small, cheap robots is they become disposable," said Hawkes. Throwing in a hundred would allow them to scope the area faster with little to lose.

“And they also can fit through small spaces that a bigger robot can’t — which is another reason ants get everywhere,” Christensen said with a laugh.

These little guys will be presented next month at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Seattle.

Science Writer

Contact Kasia Galazka at kasia.galazka@buzzfeed.com.

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