Roblog: Small Bots, Big World

There is a trend that emerges with the invention of most new technologies. Whether televisions, cell phones, or robots, people want them smaller, lighter, and more compact. Much like the space race of the mid-to-late twentieth century, technology has entered a somewhat miniaturization race. The first computers were the size of entire rooms and had less computing power than the slowest machines do today. The same went for the first cell phones, televisions, and radios. The first robots and, in fact, many of the robots in use today, are large and clunky. Fitted with large cables, big computers, and heavy batteries, most robots are anything but small.

These large robots are perfect for the tasks they’ve been assigned. It takes a heavy duty robot to weld together car parts or lift crates in a warehouse. There are just as many jobs, if not more, that require very tiny robots as well. Robotics is beginning to enter the miniaturization race as well.

Nanorobotics, dealing with robots on the nanometer scale (pieces under 1 micrometer), and microrobotics, dealing with robots under a millimeter in size, are two emerging fields that could be a source for major advances in technology.

These tiny robots aren't nano, or even micro, scale, but they still look rad. | Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons via D J Shin.
These tiny robots aren’t nano, or even micro, scale, but they still look rad. | Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons via user D J Shin.

While nano and microrobotics are still in their infancy, it’s easy to imagine the uses that these robots might have. Tiny robots could be used in disaster scenarios to look for survivors in rubble and debris. They could be used to look into caves and crevices too dangerous or too small for humans to fit into. The tiniest of robots are also promising for medical technology; we might one day have the ability to swallow a robot instead of a pill when we are ill.

Though the technology is new, there are already innovative, impressive robots being developed. The NanoRobotics lab at Carnegie Mellon University, for example, is experimenting and beginning to see success with Gecko-Inspired Repeatable Adhesives. Using the model of a gecko’s foot hairs, the team is working to make tiny robots that can scale many surfaces.

Another team at the Oklahoma University School of Computer Science, is a group, among many others, working on swarm intelligence for tiny robots. Because the robots are so tiny, they have very little computing power on their own. To compensate, the robots can work together in a team, or swarm, to share collective intelligence. The Oklahoma University team’s bio-nanorobots are made of biological material and communicate through signal molecules.

Unfortunately, nano and microrobots also pose some serious risks both to our health and our freedom. Before these become just another in the long list of robot technologies whose risks weren’t completely understood before their use, the implications of tiny robots must be evaluated. Robots so small that we can’t see them could be unknowingly used for devious behaviors. While the tiny robots could be used to look out for survivors, they could also be used as spies. Robots could be used for surveillance without anyone being aware of it.

An equally serious concern is the health issues associated with anything that tiny. The field of nanotoxicology, in fact, is dedicated to studying these effects. The inhalation of nanomaterials can result in harm similar to that received from asbestos. In animal trials, the particles used in building nanorobots have damaged the lungs and heart in noticeable ways. It’s not yet understood to what extent nanotechnology is a danger to our health or environment. It is clear, however, that on such a tiny scale, normally stable materials, like gold, behave very differently.

Nanotechnology, specifically nanorobotics, at once poses great risks and great rewards for society. Effective nanorobots could revolutionize medicine and change the outcome of search missions. At the same time, we’ve yet to understand if these rewards are worth the risks. Since the field is still in its infancy, however, nanorobotics is promising. Keep an eye out (or a microscope, really) for increasingly tiny robots in the near future as the race for tiny technology traipses on.

Ashley Hansberry

Ashley Hansberry (CAS '14) is the Senior Editor at The Quad. She is a senior studying Computer Science and Linguistics who likes writing about robots, technology, and education. When she's not living in the computer science lab, you can find her wearing animal earrings or admiring puppies she sees on the street.

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