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'Chemical robots' swarm together
05-15-2009, 11:49 AM,
'Chemical robots' swarm together

'Chemical robots' swarm together

By Jason Palmer
Science and technology reporter, BBC News

*In a pair of small laboratories in Prague, a swarm of tens of millions
of robots is being prepared, to be set loose en masse. *

It is only fitting that here, in the town where the word robot was
coined by author Karel Capek, the next generation of robotics should be

But these won't be typical robots with gears and motors; they will
instead be made of carefully designed chemical shells-within- shells,
with receptors on their surface.

Instead of software and processors to guide them, their instructions
will be written into the chemistry of their constituent parts. They are
chemical robots, or as the 1.6m euro project's title has it, chobots.

In fact, notes Frantisek Stepanek of Prague's Institute of Chemical
Technology, they are more like the robots described by Capek himself,
formed of "...a blob of some kind of colloidal jelly that not even a dog
would eat".

Dr Stepanek's robots will be small - tens of micrometres or less, a
hair's breadth across - so that they can get into the tiniest places, or
be dispersed in their millions for bigger tasks.

Those tasks will be to release a chemical payload, or mix two chemical
reactants or "precursors" from different compartments within the chobots
when they reach their goal.

Dr Stepanek sees them as one-time use chemical factories or
repositories: cheap, expendable soldiers in the fight to, say, deliver
medicines or seek out contaminants.

"They are synthetic single-celled organisms," he told visitors to his
lab during the Research Connections 2009 conference.

Although they borrow ideas from life, he cautioned, they are not alive:
they will neither evolve nor reproduce.

* Smart move *

They will be particularly well-suited for medicine, where they can be
used for controlled delivery of a drug to the place where it is needed,
rather than dosing the whole body.

"We would then be able use active molecules that are much more potent
and therefore would have stronger side effects if they were applied in
the standard way," he said.

Or they could be used in what he calls "intelligent cleaning", in which
the robots could be released into a body of water, where they would seek
out a source of contamination and upon finding one, chemically
neutralise it.

For applications in medicine, allowing the robots to hitch a ride in the
blood in order to reach their goal is one option.

But Dr Stepanek hopes to leverage recent advances in the mimicry of
chemotaxis - the way that single-celled organisms move automatically
toward a beneficial source like food or away from harmful ones.

What is more, besides a carefully chemically controlled locomotion, this
kind of automatic response could form the basis of another idea borrowed
from nature: swarming.

Swarming is a collective action of a number of agents, like ants or
bees, though none of them has the master plan that describe what the
swarm is doing.

It is a concept that has permeated the gears-and-motors robot community
with increasing success in recent years.

"Each agent doesn't have the intelligence to know about the whole
environment, " Dr Stepanek says, "but by shared communication, there is a
coherent, collective motion."

And how do robots made of chemicals communicate?

"A swarm will look for a microbe, say, and one locks onto it. It then
releases a molecule that diffuses away," Dr Stepanek explained.

"It's not communication based on radio but on a molecule not normally
present in the environment - an example of this in nature is pheromones."

The engineered chemotaxis takes care of the rest; the swarm marches
inexorably toward the source of the signalling molecule, acting as a team.

* Unique combination *

The project will borrow heavily from other strands of research that are
ongoing, but there are still significant challenges ahead.

Recent advances in materials science and polymer chemistry will help
design the robots' membranes, semi-permeable barriers that let chemical
payloads out or signalling molecules in.

They will be made either of tough silica - effectively sand shaped for
the purpose - or hydrogels, squishy water-absorbing polymers that are
not so unlike the membranes surrounding our own cells.

Biochemistry is still working out the details for the receptor molecules
on the robots' surfaces so they can home in on their targets, and even
more clever tricks will be needed to design the timely rupture of
internal compartments that house the chemicals and precursors.

But Dr Stepanek has assembled a multidisciplinary team, saying that the
combination of all these research strands in one place is unique in the

In truth, so far it's just a lot of chemistry in a dish and sketches on
whiteboards, with some silica husks of the chemical robots nearly at the

However, with the expertise in-house and 1.6m euros from the European
Research Council, the team hopes to have its first functional prototypes
swarming by the end of this year.
05-15-2009, 04:55 PM,
'Chemical robots' swarm together
Hey, that stuff is well smart. Sharpening the edge of a double-edged sword.

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