Engineering the Impossibly Small

Nancy Anderson
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There are people today learning to build and program robots so small that you can’t even see them! At least you can’t see them without a special microscope. This is a growth opportunity for your engineering interests. This is becoming a gigantic field with a really, really small product.

According to Wikipedia, “Nanorobotics” is the emerging technology field of creating machines or robots whose components are at or close to the microscopic scale of a nanometer (10-9 meters). More specifically, nanorobotics refers to the nanotechnology engineering discipline of designing and building nanorobots, with devices ranging in size from 0.1-10 micrometers and constructed of nanoscale or molecular components.

The names nanobots, nanoids, nanites, nanomachines or nanomites have also been used to describe these devices currently under research and development. Think in terms of structures so small, a whole bunch of them can be delivered through the needle of a medical syringe. Nanomachines are largely in the research-and-development phase, but some primitive molecular machines have been tested.

An example is a sensor having a switch approximately 1.5 nanometers across, capable of counting specific molecules in a chemical sample. The first useful applications of nanomachines might be in medical technology, which could be used to identify and destroy cancer cells.

Another potential application is the detection of toxic chemicals, and the measurement of their concentrations, in the environment. Recently, Rice University has demonstrated a single-molecule car developed by a chemical process and including buckyballs for wheels. It is actuated by controlling the environmental temperature and by positioning a scanning tunneling microscope tip. (I wonder if it is all-wheel drive?)

Another definition is a robot that allows precision interactions with nanoscale objects, or can manipulate with nanoscale resolution. Following the microscopy definition, even a large apparatus such as an atomic force microscope can be considered a nanorobotic instrument when configured to perform nanomanipulation. For this perspective, macroscale robots or microrobots that can move with nanoscale precision can also be considered nanorobots. Since nanorobots would be microscopic in size, it would probably be necessary for very large numbers of them to work together to perform microscopic and macroscopic tasks.

The most detailed theoretical discussion of nanorobotics, including specific design issues such as sensing, power communication, navigation, manipulation, locomotion, and onboard computation, has been presented in the medical context of nanomedicine by Robert Freitas. Some of these discussions remain at the level of unbuildable generality and do not approach the level of detailed engineering.

The joint use of nanoelectronics, photolithography, and new biomaterials provides a possible approach to manufacturing nanorobots for common medical applications, such as for surgical instrumentation, diagnosis and drug delivery. This method for manufacturing on nanotechnology scale is currently in use in the electronics industry. So, practical nanorobots should be integrated as nanoelectronics devices, which will allow tele-operation and advanced capabilities for medical instrumentation.

Potential applications for nanorobotics in medicine include early diagnosis and targeted drug-delivery for cancer, biomedical instrumentation surgery, pharmacokinetics monitoring of diabetes, and health care. In such plans,future medical nanotechnology is expected to employ nanorobots injected into the patient to perform work at a cellular level.

By K.B. Elliott

K. B. Elliott is a freelance writer for Working many related positions in the Detroit area for over 30 years gives him a unique perspective on the process. To read more of his blogs, please go to, and be sure to check out the postings for jobs in nearly any industry at Nexxt.

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