Of cars and toys

Electronics For You - - FUTURISTIC -

The sin­gle-mol­e­cule car built by Rice Univer­sity in 2005 can be con­sid­ered one of the first nanorobot suc­cesses, which paved the way for other molec­u­lar ma­chines.

The nanocar con­sisted of a chas­sis and axles made of well-de­fined or­ganic groups with piv­ot­ing sus­pen­sion and freely ro­tat­ing axles. The wheels were ‘buck­y­balls’ or spheres of pure car­bon con­tain­ing 60 atoms a piece. The en­tire car mea­sured just 3-4 nanome­tres across, mak­ing it slightly wider than a strand of DNA.

To­day, there are mi­crome­tre-sized toys on sale, such as the Hexbug Nano se­ries from ro­bot toy­maker In­no­va­tion First.

Nanofi­bre- sup­ported stem cell treat­ment has been ex­per­i­men­tally proved by a few re­search teams across the world. One team of sci­en­tists has demon­strated its ap­pli­ca­tion in re­pair­ing heart cells, to help heart at­tack vic­tims re­cover with­out re­quir­ing a heart transplant. An­other re­search group has VKRwn WKDW nDnR­fiEUH VFDIIROGV FDn EH used to over­come reti­nal de­gen­er­a­tion. They im­planted a disk-like scaf­fold into the eye, to guide the stem cells on where to grow the new reti­nal cells. This can be an ef­fec­tive cure for mac­u­lar de­gen­er­a­tion.

While most re­searchers are still work­ing with scaf­folds at the mi­crolevel, it is be­lieved that very soon we will have scaf­folds that can work at the nano-level, mak­ing it pos­si­ble to guide the stem cells more pre­cisely on how to in­ter­act with ex­ist­ing cells. The tech­nique could then be used to re­gen­er­ate dam­aged spinal cords, car­ti­lages in joints (for re­lief of arthri­tis) and nerve cells in the brain (to treat Parkinson’s dis­ease).

Ex­perts rightly be­lieve nanorobots to be the ‘medicine of the fu­ture.’ These tiny ro­bots are made of com­po­nents with mi­cro- or nano-me­tre di­men­sions, gen­er­ally 0.1-10 mi­crome­tres or smaller. They are of­ten con­structed with nanoscale or molec­u­lar com­po­nents, and are ca­pa­ble of in­ter­act­ing with minis­cule cells and other nanoscale struc­tures. In one ap­proach re­ferred to as molec­u­lar ma­chines, pro­teins and DNA could act as mo­tors, me­chan­i­cal joints, trans­mis­sion el­e­ments or sen­sors. If all these dif­fer­ent com­po­nents are as­sem­bled to­gether in proper pro­por­tion and ori­en­ta­tion, they would form nano-de­vices with mul­ti­ple de­grees of free­dom, able to ap­ply forces and ma­nip­u­late ob­jects in the nanoscale world.

The abil­ity of nanorobots to in­ter­act with the build­ing blocks of our body is likely to trans­form the face of dis­ease de­tec­tion and drug de­liv­ery, not to for­get more ef­fec­tive sur­gi­cal tech­niques. In the fu­ture, it is be­lieved that pow­er­ful drugs will be com­bined with nanorobots and in­jected into the body or maybe pre­scribed even as a cap­sule, to iden­tify af­fected ar­eas and re­lease the medicine ef­fec­tively.

Fly­ing into space too

Al­though medicine and health­care ap­pears to be the big­gest mar­ket for nanorobots, these tiny bots are hope­fully JRLnJ WR EH YHUy KHOSIuO Ln RWKHU fiHOGV as well. NASA, for in­stance, has been play­ing around for a long time with au­ton­o­mous nan­otech­nol­ogy swarms (ANTS).

ANTS are ba­si­cally groups of na- norobots made with nano electro­mechan­i­cal sys­tems and nano-sen­sors. In mak­ing these, the NASA team used nan­otubes not only to make the ro­bots VPDOOHU EuW DOVR PRUH HxLEOH. HFDuVH struts made of metal tape and nan­otubes are re­tractable, the ro­bot can shrink un­til all its nodes touch.

:LWK D VSRW RI DUWL­fiFLDO LnWHOOLJHnFH, these swarms of nanorobots can move around and work to­gether not just with fel­low-ANTS but also with other swarms. The sys­tem can learn about and adapt to its en­vi­ron­ment, help­ing it to sur­vive not just on earth but other plan­ets too. The whole ar­chi­tec­ture is self-sim­i­lar in that el­e­ments and sub-el­e­ments of the sys­tem may also be re­cur­sively struc­tured as ANTS on scales rang­ing from mi­cro­scopic to in­ter­plan­e­tary dis­tances.

For adding an el­e­ment of in­tel­li­gence to these swarms, re­searchers at the NASA God­dard Space Flight Cen­tre are de­vel­op­ing a soft­ware con­struct called neu­ral ba­sis func­tion. The neu­ral ba­sis func­tion will bridge the di­vide be­tween lower- and higher- level func­tions and cre­ate bi-level in­tel­li­gence ca­pa­ble of truly au­ton­o­mous be­hav­iour. It will greatly sim­plify the process of de­vel­op­ing au­ton­o­mous re­mote sys­tems. A lower-level neu­ral sys­tem would han­dle ba­sic sys­tem func­tions, se­cu­rity and safety, while a higher-level neu­ral sys­tem would take care of prob­lem solv­ing, plan­ning and sched­ul­ing. These two sys­tems would in­ter­act via a third sys­tem called the evolv­able neu­ral in­ter­face that alORwV WKH DUWL­fiFLDO in­tel­li­gence sys­tem to be sit­u­ated in a real-world con­text.

These groups of bots can fall into for­ma­tion, change their for­ma­tion, move over un-

Au­ton­o­mous nan­otech­nol­ogy swarms (ANTS) (Im­age cour­tesy: http://ants.gsfc.nasa.gov)

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