Ba­sic needs: lo­co­mo­tion, power and nav­i­ga­tion

Electronics For You - - FUTURISTIC - The au­thor is a tech­ni­cally-qual­i­fied free­lance writer, ed­i­tor and hands-on mom based in Chen­nai

A nanorobot is es­sen­tially a ma­chine at the nanome­tre or molec­u­lar scale com­posed of nano-scale com­po­nents, ca­pa­ble of ac­tu­a­tion, sens­ing, sig­nalling, in­for­ma­tion pro­cess­ing, in­tel­li­gence and swarm be­hav­iour. So, like all ro­bots, nanorobots also need sys­tems for lo­co­mo­tion, nav­i­ga­tion and power. Here is how these func­tions are likely to be han­dled in nanorobots, es­pe­cially those in­jected into pa­tients for some form of treat­ment:


Ex­ter­nal sys­tems or on­board sys­tems may be used for sens­ing and con­trol­ling their move­ment. Ul­tra­sonic sig­nals may be used to de­tect the nanorobot’s lo­ca­tion and di­rect it to the right des­ti­na­tion. En­gi­neers at the Ecole Polytech­nique de Montreal have showed how to de­tect, track, con­trol, power and pro­pel nanorobots us­ing magnetic res­o­nance imag­ing (MRI) de­vices. Be­cause medicine is one of the main ap­pli­ca­tions of nanorobots, and most hos­pi­tals have MRI ma­chines, this might be­come the in­dus­try stan­dard. Doc­tors might also track nanorobots by mak­ing these emit a ra­dioac­tive dye as they travel into the pa­tient’s blood­stream. A flu­o­ro­scope could be used to de­tect the dye. X-rays, ra­dio-waves, mi­crowaves or heat may also be used to de­tect nanorobot move­ment. In­ter­nal sen­sors, such as chem­i­cal or spec­tro­scopic sen­sors, might help the nanorobot de­tect cer­tain as­pects of its en­vi­ron­ment and thereby judge its path. Well into the fu­ture, nanorobots might in­clude a minia­ture cam­era. The im­ages cap­tured by this cam­era would help the op­er­a­tor to trace and con­trol the nanorobot’s move­ment re­motely.


On­board or ex­ter­nal sys­tems might be used. Nanorobots could draw power from the pa­tient it­self—body heat or move­ment could help charge them. A nanorobot with mounted elec­trodes could use elec­trolytes in the pa­tient’s blood to work like a bat­tery. Other chem­i­cal re­ac­tions with blood could be used to pro­duce en­ergy. En­gi­neers are also work­ing on build­ing smaller ca­pac­i­tors to power nanorobots. In the rare pos­si­bil­ity that a nanorobot is con­nected to a con­trol sys­tem through a wire, power could also be sup­plied through the same wire. Light can also be used as an ex­ter­nal power source. Mi­crowaves, ul­tra­sonic sig­nals or magnetic fields could also be con­verted into power for the nanorobot. A nanorobot with a piezo­elec­tric mem­brane could pick up ul­tra­sonic sig­nals and con­vert them into elec­tric­ity.


Since a nanorobot in­jected into a hu­man body has to usu­ally travel against the flow of blood, it needs a strong propul­sion sys­tem. The lo­co­mo­tion must also be safe—even a slight de­tour or im­proper speed can cause harm to the pa­tient. Sci­en­tists are watch­ing or­gan­isms like Parame­cium to un­der­stand how they move, so that nanorobots can be mod­elled on na­ture-in­spired tech­niques. One team of sci­en­tists has de­vel­oped a mi­cro-ro­bot that uses small ap­pendages to grip and crawl through blood ves­sels. The sci­en­tists ma­nip­u­late the arms by cre­at­ing magnetic fields out­side the pa­tient’s body. Minia­turised jet pumps could use blood plasma to push the nanorobot for­ward. An­other op­tion is to use an elec­tro­mag­netic pump for this pur­pose. Nanorobots could move around by us­ing a vi­brat­ing mem­brane. By al­ter­nately tight­en­ing and re­lax­ing ten­sion on the mem­brane, a nanorobot could gen­er­ate small amounts of thrust for it to move. com­mu­ni­ca­tion, nav­i­ga­tion, ma­nip­u­la­tion, lo­co­mo­tion and on­board com­pu­ta­tion, have been pre­sented only in the med­i­cal con­text so far,” says Ra­jeev Kar­wal, CEO and founder, Mi­la­grow Busi­ness & Knowl­edge So­lu­tions.

We have to wait and see how the world is just now wak­ing up to the po­ten­tial of this tech­nol­ogy. Now fac­tors like fund­ing, stan­dards and con­trol will play a role in speed­ing up the de­vel­op­ment and adoption, and bring­ing down the costs,” Kar­wal adds.

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