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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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  • But! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by 1010011010 ( 53039 ) on Monday January 14, 2002 @03:44PM (#2837690) Homepage
    Will the nanoprobes monitor the water supply for pollution by nanoprobes? Huh? Huh?
  • How long .. (Score:4, Interesting)

    by SirSlud ( 67381 ) on Monday January 14, 2002 @03:45PM (#2837693) Homepage
    .. until we have to send out the second swarm to monitor for the pollution levels the first swarm cause? ;)

    Yeah, it might sound like a troll, but it's not! Honestly, how do we know these robots won't affect the ecology of the water they are placed in?
  • Potential Problems (Score:4, Interesting)

    by mosch ( 204 ) on Monday January 14, 2002 @03:46PM (#2837704) Homepage
    Is it just me, or does monitoring pollution by dumping large amounts of microscopic robots into the pollution seem really rediculous? What happens if a person consumes these robots? What happens to animals if it turns out that these robots build up in some part of their body?

    This is fascinating, but I'd prefer to see these studies being done in tanks, not in the ocean. This smells a lot like somebody solving a problem by creating a different one.

  • Definitions (Score:4, Interesting)

    by medcalf ( 68293 ) on Monday January 14, 2002 @03:50PM (#2837741) Homepage
    Wouldn't "swarms of microscopic robots" constitute "potentially dangerous microorganisms"?
  • by ackthpt ( 218170 ) on Monday January 14, 2002 @03:56PM (#2837790) Homepage Journal
    The worst pollution happens on land, particulary from Ag run-off, and re-irrigation, which draws salts out of soil and makes downstream water unusable. Just look for dead plants or mutated babies and you'll know enough.

    BTW, read in the Sunday paper that Erin Brockovich is on the trail of another suit against PG&E for Chromium 6 in ground water.

    Interested in a history of water use and mis-use? Read Cadillac Desert, by Marc Reisner.

  • by Quizme2000 ( 323961 ) on Monday January 14, 2002 @03:58PM (#2837801) Homepage Journal
    Now for those of us that read the Damn article. The ability for the project to suceed on only 1.5 mil is pretty ambitious, the article mentions that they need the software to link together millions of these 'bots via weak radio link, and a mass producing method of creating the other 999,990 units. I would really like to know how they fit a device that transmits a unique indenitifer and a binary digit in an envirment that would seem to distort any type of transmission and amplify electric interfernece.
  • Wow! (Score:3, Interesting)

    by RareHeintz ( 244414 ) on Monday January 14, 2002 @04:10PM (#2837878) Homepage Journal
    Imagine a Beo...

    No, I can't do it.

    Jokes aside, that's interesting stuff - but also a little scary. Once you have free-roving nanites monitoring pollutants in the Pacific, how long is it before someone comes up with a way to have them monitor, say, intoxicant levels in your blood?

    Just imagine having your workplace demand the ability to monitor what you do with your body 24/7. "Have a few margaritas last Saturday, Wilson? You should really keep an eye on that sort of behavior. You are a company asset, after all..."

    - B

  • Re:But! (Score:3, Interesting)

    by jmccay ( 70985 ) on Monday January 14, 2002 @04:11PM (#2837885) Journal
    Will they be able to tell when they get eaten in the food chain? We could end up eating a few of these when we eat tuna of some other fish in the ocean's food chain. I am more concerned abouot that, and the side effect of sending multiple signals through the ocean. We are not even complete sure sonar does mess with the the navigation of ocean creatures.
  • by Molina the Bofh ( 99621 ) on Monday January 14, 2002 @04:16PM (#2837904) Homepage
    I believe these nanobots will be in a diminute quantity that they'll make absolutely no difference in the tons and tons of water the oceans have.

    You know those tracking devices that biologists attach to some wild animals, like little metal rings in the birds leg, that help cientists identify migration patterns ? Some even transmit radio waves. Using the same logic, you could also say that attaching identifiers to wild birds would make extra weight and thus disturb their flight. Or would harm the predators who eat those birds. Well, it makes as much difference for them as a billion of nanobots would make to an ocean.

    Besides, these nanobots apparently so harmless that, according to the article: "I don't think these robots will be confined to the ocean. We will eventually make robots to hunt down pathogens or repair cells in the human body".

    Correct me if I'm wrong, but I'd think blood from a live person would me more sensitive to impurities than an ocean.
  • by Graff ( 532189 ) on Monday January 14, 2002 @04:17PM (#2837912)
    I'm not that big on the mechanical nanotech, we have a long way yet to go before we can duplicate some of the most perfect nanotech systems out there: microorganisms.

    We have the ability right now to craft custom virii and bacteria which can replicate and destroy other creatures. If we want to kill cryptosporidium and giardia (two common water-bourne parasites) then we should find the natural predators of such creatures and turn them to our needs.

    It's similar to the chemical spraying of crops to prevent insects and other pests from destroying harvests. For years we have been laying on the pesticides in order to stop crops from being ruined. Instead of relying on chemicals, we should instead be investing in natural methods of reducing pests, such as the use of preying mantis, ladybugs, egg-laying wasps, and other natural predators.

    Don't get me wrong, I don't think that all chemicals are evil and should be eliminated. I'm a chemist myself. I do believe that we can be much more effective if we cut back on the more toxic chemicals and replace them with more gentle alternatives. Many of the harsher chemicals build up and end up destroying the producing potential of our farmlands.
  • by Medievalist ( 16032 ) on Monday January 14, 2002 @04:19PM (#2837919)
    The article specified weak radio signals as the method of inter-nodal communication, but propagation of radio frequencies [] through water that isn't nano-pure really sucks.
    Sonar seems more feasible, particularly in salt water where radio doesn't work worth a damn. Of course then you'd have to worry about noise pollution... hey, wait, even if the radio signals work you are going to be really messing with electrically sensitive organisms (electric eels being the obvious example, but they aren't the only ones).
  • there is somthing... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by geekoid ( 135745 ) <<moc.oohay> <ta> <dnaltropnidad>> on Monday January 14, 2002 @04:38PM (#2838021) Homepage Journal
    ... that allready does this. They're called frogs.
  • by dangrsmind ( 466725 ) on Monday January 14, 2002 @04:44PM (#2838050)
    Once this technology is developed it can also be used to monitor for other things. Send a swarm of nanobots into the sewer system looking for traces of illegal substances in waste for example. Just have the little buggers "backtrace" through the sewer network to find your house.

    Have a nice day.

The unfacts, did we have them, are too imprecisely few to warrant our certitude.