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Swarms Of Tiny Robots To Monitor Water Pollution 182

savi writes "The University of Southern California School of Engineering has received a research grant to create swarms of microscopic robots to monitor potentially dangerous microorganisms in the ocean. Basically, nanoscale robots with electrical and mechanical components that can propel themselves, send signals, and do basic computations. "
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Swarms Of Tiny Robots To Monitor Water Pollution

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  • and hopefully (Score:4, Insightful)

    by kraada ( 300650 ) on Monday January 14, 2002 @02:50PM (#2837736)
    this will be the first step towards nanobots inside the human body. If these things can monitor pollutant rate, then they can be easily modified to check for oxygen level in the blood, nutrient level, etc. If they can start moving things around, maybe they can fix internal damage . . .
    There's lots of great application for this . . . if it starts by fixing pollution, cool, but I'm going to continue to look ahead to all of the great thigns that this can lead to.
  • by CDWert ( 450988 ) on Monday January 14, 2002 @02:50PM (#2837740) Homepage
    This is cool, Im all for minature robotics, like the
    one the Brit came up with that feeds and then powers itself on their bodies. They could gather invaluable
    information on the oceans, BUT are hey going to put a JONAH circut in these things ?

    I mean what happens when a plankton feeder sucks up a hundred thousand or so of these, it will (may) register a higher temp, movement pattern etc.

    I love the idea of a self sufficient ocengoing robot, I always have, I saw a solar robot creature
    demo a few years ago, neuralnet stuff, that the jellyfish would react to the crab etc, Why no use a larger scale verson, build em in Taiwan at 2 bucks a pop and set em loose, A larger unit could accomplish this, perhaps much more efficently, Miniturization for Minituriztions sake has always eluded me.
  • by klaun ( 236494 ) on Monday January 14, 2002 @03:02PM (#2837828)
    The problem I've always seen to nanobots is where does such a small device store energy? In looking at various proposals and ideas on how they would work and what they'd do, it seems energy storage is always the missing component. Propulsion, RF transmission, anything involving actuators are all going to be energy-expensive activities, where does the energy come from?
  • by Quizme2000 ( 323961 ) on Monday January 14, 2002 @03:04PM (#2837839) Homepage Journal
    They article mentioned that these would be used in oceans near industrial areas, not your local artisan well or mountain spring. And if you did *drink* them, well then you would *release* them later on, a billionth of an inch is so small you could breath these in a 1,000 at a time and they would get stuck in the mucus membrane in your lungs. Ok..Ok.. You get injected with these things via a crazed scientist in your local mall, your white blood cells, liver, and kidneys would desolve them in you blood stream and release the waste o'natural.
  • by kalyptein ( 313110 ) on Monday January 14, 2002 @03:20PM (#2837926)
    There have been a number of posts asking about the effect of dumping these nanobots into the water, both on the marine ecology and anyone who might drink them. Well, first off, if you drink untreated salt water you have bigger problems than nanobots.

    But yes, the effect needs to be addressed. Although, these aren't self-replicators it should be noted. The density of the bots will be crucial. Assuming they don't build up to a measurable level of "silt", I don't see an immediate problem. Organisms can cope with drinking grains of sand, and these will be comparable to that, or smaller. From what I can gather from the article, they are planning to use inorganic materials for the most part (metals, silicon). If that's the case, I would expect them to be treated much like any other piece of grit. Its the organic compounds that really stick with you.

    I like this idea in general, but I'm a little dubious about how well it will work, regardless of side-effects. If you want to use antibodies, you'd better get the binding affinity just right, or you'll end up with a lot of false positives (low affinity) or a bot with all its sensors permanently clogged up (high affinity). Passing through fish digestive systems, getting sucked up by filter-feeders, and generally tossed about in a well-lit, ion-rich solution doesn't do much for long term operation. Are we planning to pump these things into the ocean nonstop?

    Still, good luck to them. I'd love to see something like this made to work.

  • by enkidu ( 13673 ) on Monday January 14, 2002 @06:09PM (#2838883) Homepage Journal

    This kind of unscientific bullshitting by unqualified people just kills me. There are many fundamental flaws in this project. Here's a few

    • Power, how will these nanobots power themselves and their radio transmitters?
    • Underwater radio, to put it bluntly, high frequency underwater radio transmission doesn't work.
    • Telemetry, so how are these beasties going to figure out where they are? Or what direction their getting radio signals from?
    • Propulsion, the smaller you get, the harder it is to move around (especially in water). This objection can be offset by stating that the nanobots will rely on diffusion to spread. This leads to another problem.
    • Organization, how are they going to maintain integrity and or coherency in communication? AFAIK, no one has built/simulated large numbers (>10^6) of cooperative robotic groups. I hope I'm wrong though.

    Here's an example of the kind of rigorous though that has gone into this research proposal. Here we have "David Caron, professor of biological sciences and a co-investigator on the project" stating:

    ocean robots needn't be terribly complicated or powerful to be useful. A single robot might sense only whether the water is fresh or saline and communicate by a faint radio signal only with other robots closest to it, which would then relay the information to other robots in the network linked to the Internet by still more robots.

    Oh is that all it is? And who says that a robot that can do all of that isn't complicated or powerful? And pray, do you know how well radio signals travel in water? Here's a hint, the US Navy subs only use it for extremely short range communication and extremely long range communication (with frequencies in the 10's of Hz range). Oh and did you know that your antenna needs to be proportional to the wavelength you are going to transmit and recieve? Your nano-bots are going to be how big? How are you going to figure out where the signal is coming from? direction finding? GPS?

    And pray tell, how are you going to power these microscopic wonders (which need to transmit radio waves mind you)? Remember volume shrinks by the cube.

    This is the one that really had me rolling on the floor

    The USC researchers will first build small robots that will move, sense and communicate while tethered in a tank of water in a laboratory. They will gradually progress to building and controlling increasingly larger numbers of increasingly smaller freely moving robots. The end goal of the project will be to create robots that are as small as the microorganisms that they seek to monitor.

    Is that all? So, we just need to duplicate the functionality of bateria without the self-duplication but with added radio communication, telemetry (to figure out where signals are coming from), and data acquisition. Oh and social/aggregate organization. Piece o' cake. Is next Tuesday good for you?

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