Workshop on NanoSensors: Self-Organization and Swarm Robotics

Alas! The conference is over. Whew! What a great workshop – fabulous speakers, fascinating talks, and a dedicated audience who stayed on to the bitter end. So what did we learn? Some of the most fascinating work on nano-biology that promises to change the field of medicine but is about a decade away. The idea of targeted drug delivery seems to be the most potent application so far. The fundamental problem lies in how to package and transport the medicine through the body to the target areas. While living organisms have remarkable nano-machines, building artificial nano-machines is extremely difficult. Some researchers have cleverly coupled nano-materials with other naturally occurring nano-components to create working nano-machines.

The conference had two parts to it: a one-day workshop on nano-robotics and swarm behavior and a two-day conference on nano-communications. The workshop included some of the top researchers in the area of nano-robotics. The workshop brought together computational as well as experimental researchers. The workshop was opened by Sanjay Goel who discussed the need for investigating self-organization in context of nanosensors and extolled the need to develop a general theory of self-organization that transcends multiple applications. Stephen Bush provided a set of thought provoking questions to set the groundwork for the workshop. Dinos provided an overview of the entire field of nano-robotics and presented a roadmap for nano-medicine applications. He showed nano-machines constructed from biological materials such as peptides and proteins. Ari provided an overview of his research on swarm behavior where using local rules he is able to simulate construction of structures. Nikolaus provided an interesting application of swarm robotics using micro-robots (not nano-robots) for turbine inspection. He showed that performance using a swarm of robots is comparable to deliberate path planning which is very expensive. Metin Sitti provided more applications using micro-robots that are inspired by insect behavior, including, climbing robots, robots that walk on water and flying robots. John Barker provided a glimpse into the very ambitious project of creating smart dust, which can be used for harvesting and storing energy. Jonathan Bachrach provided a programming language to make swarm robotics much easier. Michael Carpenter discussed sensors based on quantum dots and their potential applications in inspection.

So what did we learn from the workshop?

It was clear from the workshop that practical applications of nano-medicine were at least a decade away; nevertheless it showed a roadmap towards achieving that. The main application of nano-robotics envisaged so far is targeted drug delivery for areas such as tumors, which requires transportation of the medicine through the blood vessels. What we also learned was that using artificial components it is not feasible to create nano machines however machines at a micro-level could be created. It became clear that swarm behavior using micro-level machines if not difficult had marginal gains because of the size of the swarm required. Nano-machines using existing biological components are not only possible but also a reality today. Though not available commercially, several projects have shown viability of nano-machines using nano-components from cells. Another key issue that is faced in the area of nano-biology is transportation of nano-machines. This can be done using bacteria that have a natural affinity to specific areas of the body (such as tumors) or by using magnetically charged nano-machines.

~ Sanjay Goel & Stephen Bush

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