Nanotechnology as a whole is fairly simple to understand, but developing this universal technology into a nanorobot has been slightly more complicated.
To date, scientists have made significant progress but have not officially released a finished product in terms of a nanorobot that functions on an entirely mechanical basis.
Many of the nanobot prototypes function quite well in certain respects but are mostly or partly biological in nature, whereas the ultimate goal and quintessential definition of a nanorobot is to have the microscopic entity made entirely out of electromechanical components.
In fact, researchers anticipate that due to the complicated nature of their construction, nanobots will only fully emerge after several generations of partly-biological nanobot forerunners have been constructed in order to make them.
Nanorobots are essentially an adapted machine version of bacteria. They are designed to function on the same scale as both bacteria and common viruses in order to interact with and repel them from the human system.
Since they are so small that you can’t see them with your naked eye, they will also possibly be used to perform “miracle” functions such as cleaning your kitchen (“the kitchen that cleans itself!”) invisibly weaving fabric, cooking food slowly but steadily, and essentially performing other functions that humans could do, but—let’s face it—will probably be too lazy to do ourselves by the time these nanobots become functional.
Since the best way to create a nanobot is to use another nanobot, the problem lies in getting started. Humans are able to perform one nano-function at a time, but the thousands of varied applications required to construct an autonomous robot would be exceedingly tedious for us to execute by hand, no matter how high-tech the laboratory. So it becomes necessary to create a whole set of specialized machine-tools in order to speed the process of nanobot building.
Researchers have been chipping away at this problem for decades. In 1989 they discovered how to manually operate the system; a group of IBM engineers lined individual atoms up one by one until they had spelled out their company’s name.
In doing so they not only created the smallest business logo in history, but also discovered for themselves just how long and grueling the process of hand-building even a single nanobot would be. True, nanobots measure more like six atoms across, but they are far more complicated in design and need to be engineered in such a way that they are autonomous.
The ideal nanobot consists of a transporting mechanism, an internal processor and a fuel unit of some kind that enables it to function. The main difficulty arises around this fuel unit, since most conventional forms of robotic propulsion can’t be shrunk to nanoscale with current technology. Scientists have succeeded in reducing a robot to five or six millimeters, but this size still technically qualifies it as a macro-robot.
One possible solution is to adhere a fine film of radioactive particles to the nanobot’s body. As the particles decay and release energy the nanobot would be able to harness this power source; radioactive film can be enlarged or reduced to any scale without a drop in efficiency occurring.
Another nice side effect of this system is its ability to renew automatically. With the constant circulating nuclear energy it would supply, this fuel cell would never need to be replaced. This puts it several notches above solar cells or conventional battery packs of any size, which were previously the other two options being considered for equipping the nanorobot.
The other problem with constructing a successful nanorobot lies in breaking its materials down small enough. Metal that might be used for the robot’s construction behaves one way in relatively large quantities and a completely different way on the nanoscale—in fact, this is the entire basis for nanotechnology as a discipline.
Experts believe that silicon might make the ideal material, especially since it has been traditionally used for delicate electronics, particularly small computer parts. Microscopic silicon components called transducers have so far been successfully built into nanorobot legs.
Scientists are hard at work on designing a body built out of transducers; they are encountering slight problems in agreeing on what the final shape of the standard nanobot should be.
Very few researchers support the biped-humanoid design, since this has given test robots a strange, clumsy shuffle. The nanobot needs to be fast, aerodynamic and smooth-moving in order to complete its functions. Some people think that a spider-like body would work best, but many nanorobot researchers also think that a smaller version of the centipede might be best.
They hope that by equipping the nanobot with several sets of fast-moving legs and keeping its body low to the ground, they can create a quick, efficient machine that would also be suitably shaped for introduction into human blood vessels to perform functions such as clearing away built-up cholesterol or repairing tissue damage.
These tasks are key to the concept of a nanorobot, since it is anticipated that many of their most useful applications will be in the medical field. Doctors and researchers expect nanobots to be useful for a wide variety of things, since a robot this small can actually interact with materials on their molecular and atomic level. Because of this special capability, the nanobots can build or destroy particle by particle.
They could rebuild tissue molecules in order to close a wound, or rebuild the walls of veins and arteries to stop bleeding and save lives. They could make their way through the bloodstream to the heart and perform heart surgery molecule by molecule without many of the risks and discomfort associated with traditional open-heart operations. Likewise, researchers hope that nanorobots will have many miraculous effects on brain research, cancer research, and finding cures for difficult diseases like leukemia and AIDS.
Although standardized nanorobot production has not yet been fully realized, scientists are hard at work developing a system for constructing these tiny helpers. Chances are good that sometime in the next 25 years they will make their public debut.