Bend it Like a Nanobot

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PostPosted: Mon May 11, 2009 8:57 am    Post subject: Bend it Like a Nanobot Reply with quote

Soccer-playing Nanobots in Training for Medical Applications

A tiny football-playing robot has been developed by a team in Zurich to spark young people's interest in nanotechnology - and with the hope of leading to pioneering medical treatments.

The robot, made out of nickel and powered by magnetic fields, is just 300 microns wide - about the width of three hairs. It plays football with an even smaller ball, dubbed a "nanoball" - and is able to dodge microscopic "defenders" before slotting home into the world's smallest goal.

Microchip with Nanosoccer Fields of Play
The glass microchip on the left measures 3 centimeters across - slightly more than the diameter of a quarter on the right - and is divided into sixteen 2.5 millimeter by 2.5 millimeter nanosoccer playing fields.

The nanoball is a silicon dioxide disk (top view) about the diameter of a human hair (100 µm) that can be pushed across the Nanogram Soccer field of play by the nanosoccer robots. The "T" is a mark for spotting the ball on the field. The three circles are the location of the raised dimples on the underside of the disk that allow movement across the field.

The robot's developers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich told BBC World Service's Digital Planet programme that the project is about engaging young Swiss - whose country will co-host the football European Championships this summer - in tiny tech.

"It's hopefully the start of a long-term competition in trying to make nanotechnology and microtechnology that can get kids excited in the classroom about this stuff," said professor Bradley Nelson.

Risky moves

Seen by the naked eye, the robot looks like a very small speck of dust. Controlling it involves watching through a camera, which tracks the robot through a microscope. The robot can either be controlled manually by the cursor keys on a keyboard or programmed in advance. The tiny robots are designed to work inside the human body

"Hit a button and it goes," said professor Nelson.

"It figures out where the obstacles are, and it can then pick up a ball and move it into a goal.

"It's really fun to watch. It gets the students involved - we take it to the kids in Zurich and get them interested in nanotechnology."

The team was inspired by the success of the Robocup project, in which autonomous robots play football against each other, with the aim of building a robotic team capable of challenging a World Cup-winning human side by 2050.

"They're amazing to watch," said professor Nelson.

"It's a fun competition, but trying to move it down to these scales is a challenge, but something that opens up a whole new area of technology to the students."

But the ultimate real-life application of the tiny robots is medical - moving small particles within the human body. The hopes are that tiny robots will help with things like delivering drugs through hard-to-reach or otherwise risky areas. For example, nanobots may be able to navigate drugs through the veins in the retina, the inner layer of the eye.

"We're looking at novel ways of delivering drugs to locations of the body that are very difficult to reach," professor Nelson said. "This is a step on that road."

Meanwhile, Nanosoccer returns to the field later this month, when the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) hosts for the second time the world's most Lilliputian sport. Three student teams will participate in a public exhibition at the 2008 U.S. “RoboCup Open” in Pittsburgh, Pa., May 25 to 27, where miniature “soccer players”—computer-driven robots six times smaller than an amoeba operating on a field the size of a grain of rice—will show off their skills.

The teams from Carnegie-Mellon University ( Pittsburgh, Pa. ), the U.S. Naval Academy (Annapolis, Md.) and the University of Waterloo ( Waterloo, Ontario, Canada ) will meet at the Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh, Pa., to put their nanobots through their paces. The nanobots will be demonstrating agility, maneuverability, response to computer control and ability to move objects—all tools that future miniaturized mechanized workers will need for tasks such as microsurgery within the human body or the manufacturing of atom-sized components for microscopic electronic devices.

RoboCup is an annual international competition designed to foster innovations and advances in artificial intelligence and intelligent robotics by using the game of soccer as a testing ground. NIST's goal in coordinating competitions between the world's smallest robots is to show the feasibility and accessibility of technologies for fabricating MicroElectroMechanical Systems (MEMS), tiny mechanical devices built onto semiconductor chips and measured in micrometers (millionth of a meter).

The soccer nanobots are operated by remote control under an optical microscope. They move in response to changing magnetic fields or electrical signals transmitted across the microchip arena. Although the bots are a few tens of micrometers to a few hundred micrometers long, they are considered “nanoscale” because their masses range from a few nanograms to a few hundred nanograms. They are manufactured from materials such as aluminum, nickel, gold, silicon and chromium.

Among the nanosoccer drills that will be demonstrated in Pittsburgh are the two-millimeter dash in which nanobots seek fast times for a goal-to-goal sprint across the playing field; a slalom course where the path between goals is blocked by “defenders” (polymer posts); and a ball handling exercise that requires robots to move “nanoballs” (spheres with the diameter of a human hair) into the goal. One team even plans to conduct its runs underwater to lessen friction.

RoboCup and NIST are jointly organizing the upcoming U.S. Open nanosoccer demonstration as the final step toward the first official Nanogram League competition for soccer nanobots at the 2009 international RoboCup event in Austria .

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