Imagine a swarm of minute robotic sentries, each able to park on a nickel, prowling about your house looking for intruders or sniffing for smoke. The Energy Dept.'s Sandia National Laboratories is going down that road. Researchers there have created MARV, the Mini Autonomous Robot Vehicle, a Lilliputian terminator on tiny tank treads. Powered by three watch batteries, MARV sports an 8K integrated-circuit brain, a heat sensor, and two independent motors that drive the little robot's tank treads.

The treads are mere rubber bands, but they allow the robot to climb over obstacles--like the pile of a carpet--that its small size would otherwise render unmanageable. Its brain? "The little computer is the same one used in vending machines and treadmills," says Sandia researcher Doug R. Adkins. Future models might include a radio, a camera, or even a chemical sensor. And since they're so tiny, says Adkins, the robots could be turned loose in a room to listen in on conversations.

MARV, which is no bigger than the last joint on a pinkie finger, could shrink even more if researchers can figure out how to make a smaller battery.

By Petti Fong

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