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Robotics Hardware Technology

Swarms of Solar-Powered Microbots On the Way 119

Mike writes to tell us that Inhabitat has an interesting article, complete with some pretty pictures, about a new solar-powered swarm robot that could be used to collect data and aid in surveillance. "These mini-robots are quite revolutionary, considering that they contain all that's necessary to collect data and relay it back using one single circuit board. In the past single-chip robots have presented significant design and manufacturing challenges due in part to the use of solder as an adhesive. These new microbots use conductive adhesive to attach the components to a double-sided flexible printed circuit board using surface mount technology. The circuit is then folded into thirds and wrapped around the ASIC (application-specific integrated circuit). On top, a solar cell generates power for the robot and delivers 3.6 V to the unit, which is enough for it to walk. Locomotion is achieved via three vibrating legs, while a fourth horizontal vibrating leg is used as a touch sensor."
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Swarms of Solar Powered Microbots On the Way

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  • by JJJK ( 1029630 ) on Tuesday September 01, 2009 @08:08AM (#29272183) Homepage
    the "grey goo threat" might be something to be considered, but it shouldn't stop us from further exploring micro/nanobots. I'm tired of hearing someone shout "grey goo!" or "skynet!" every time there is some advance in nanotechnology or AI (and I mean the ones who are actually being serious about it). You can't stop the progress in these fields (and you shouldn't, considering all the positive aspects), or just repeat fear-mongering from luddites/attention-whores/sci-fi-writers. Instead, try to understand current research and help to find ways to make these things safe!
  • On grey goo (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday September 01, 2009 @08:12AM (#29272209)

    Every time I hear the "grey goo" debate I ponder why some people love so much to hypothesize about the potential future without taking as much at a single glimpse at the past and present. The grey goo hypothesis states that, as a result of some technological advancement, there will be a matter that is able to function and replicate by consuming available background resources until all resources are consumed and turned into more grey goo. This position utterly fails to realize that there already is matter that does exactly that. It's called life.

    Life already functions in the most optimal way possible at consuming energy and replicating more of its own kind. But the "grey goo" scenario doesn't happen due to a simple natural law of diminishing returns -- as more and more grey goo (or, in our case, life) is produced, the less and less marginal advantage is there at producing more of the same kind. Identical species (or in simpler cases, where there are no "individual specimens", identical biomasses (e.g. mold, grass) first spreads out by consuming the most readily available resource, but as its numbers grow and resources dwindle, it gains less and less marginal advantage at consuming more resources, and becomes its own competitor more than a co-operator. The fact that during the billions of years that life existed on Earth, Earth has not turned into a uniform mass of a single biomatter, utterly destroys the "grey goo" hypothesis.

    On top of that, there is this "adaptability" thing. As grey goo spreads more and more, and becomes its own competitor, some strains of grey goo (lets call it blue goo), through trial and error, will function better when instead of cooperating with other grey goo, exploits it, for example by consuming grey goo directly rather than consuming what the grey goo consumes. In turn, the grey goo will now have to modify its behavior to not only consume and replicate but also to defend itself against blue goo. Then we get yellow goo which likewise will consume blue goo. Then we get some violet goo which adapts to the blue-yellow goo rivalry by, for example, becoming poisonous go yellow goo to consume while offering habitat protection to blue goo in exchange for some released energy from what the blue goo consumed.

    This sequence goes on and on, until we get an ultimate form (brown goo) that sufficiently adapts to consciously exploit other forms of goo for its own needs, build constructed habitats for itself, wage wars on its own kind, and occasionally debate on whether all brown goo specimens originally evolved from humble grey goo, or whether they were created by some Divine Heavenly Goo instead.

  • Re:On grey goo (Score:2, Insightful)

    by maxume ( 22995 ) on Tuesday September 01, 2009 @08:37AM (#29272425)

    Minor quibble: "Life already functions in the most optimal way possible at consuming energy and replicating more of its own kind." is quite an assertion.

    The use of things like rotating bearings and electric current (for transmission of energy) might enable a self replicating machine to operate much more efficiently than life.

    Then there are the solar panels that capture much more energy than photosynthesis, while not being made (mostly) out of water (so an artificial tree might be able to just keep its leaves through the winter).

  • Missing a Point (Score:2, Insightful)

    by miasmic ( 669645 ) on Tuesday September 01, 2009 @09:33AM (#29272963)
    What you are missing is that life is subject to limitations on the type of resources it can use. Nearly all animals directly need only biomass for food, oxygen and clean water. And with the balanced ecosystem the planet has, the plant kingdom creates the biomass and regenerates 'used' oxygen. A grey goo would not be subject to these limitations. It would probably be able to use several different sources of energy. If animals run out of biomass to eat, they starve to death. Grey goo could foreseeably evolve to be able to, or already be adapted to deriving energy from non-organic chemical processes, literally eating the planet - or be able to proliferate purely from solar energy. It's adaptability in short time frames, instead of over millions of years as with natural life is exactly what makes it such a frightening prospect.
  • I don't see where bearings could give any potential advantage anyways:

    - Wheels are a great big joke for transportation outside of paved or relatively smooth surfaces - look at offroad vehicles, they're horrendously inefficient in every way and there's a reason they're not small. To really get around in nature with wheels would take something like a rock crawler, a necessarily large, extremely complicated and inefficient vehicle that requires a lot of skill to use successfully.

    - Fuel-burning engines are impractical at very small scales and are relatively maintenance-intensive. ICEs are pretty inefficient and turbines are only practical are fairly large scales.

    - And finally the bearings themselves are relatively fragile and maintenance-intensive.

    The best chassis a self-replicating autonomous robot could hope for would be a biological body that can heal itself, doesn't need lubrication systems and has limbs for transportation. Maybe a self-replicating nanobot that acts as a pathogen and 'roots' raccoon bodies (agile, opposable thumbs, pretty well-armed between the claws, teeth and other pathogens they're carrying) would be a successful one. Maybe a life cycle where the bot grows like a plant, producing a sweet infected fruit that the raccoon eats, where it infects the brain and grows more "seeds" in the digestive system would work (although it would still need to reproduce with other raccoons, perhaps also passing the bot along as an STD, or the raccoons that aren't attracted to the fruit would have a selective advantage).

    A good, feasible compromise would be an insect body facsimile - it could be actuated with hydraulic systems, linear electric motors or artificial muscles, all of which are fairly robust, and it could potentially allow the robot to get itself around much better than a wheeled chassis. Imagine a grasshopper-like body that has the option of crawling or taking a huge leap.
  • by drinkypoo ( 153816 ) <martin.espinoza@gmail.com> on Tuesday September 01, 2009 @10:56AM (#29273709) Homepage Journal

    I'm trying to imagine a horde of tiny robots lugging a single ear of corn a few miles to a drop off point, and then I'm picturing a combine harvester harvesting a whole acre every few minutes, while also doing processing!

    Why don't you also picture what is happening beneath the soil! The use of heavy machinery for harvesting creates hardpan, which results in poor drainage, which results in the death of whole classes of biota which make up a significant percentage of the mass of healthy soil. Tilling also produces hardpan. Growing crops as monocultures actually creates pest problems, by eliminating the habitat and protection for beneficial insects and other creatures (e.g. birds and lizards) who also consume harmful pests.

    Ants manage to accomplish great feats of engineering and even war by operating in an organized fashion. While we have a long way to go before we build any robot as capable in its purview as a common ant, the concept is still sufficiently applicable to the problem. It is also an important step in achieving the same thing at a true nanoscale. Using arrays of microrobots to harvest crops would permit us to stop planting monocultures; we could in fact re-adopt no-till methods of agriculture which preserve soil diversity and actually lead to the production of more nutritious food! Further, the plants can be grown in guilds in which the plants actually benefit one another, fixing nutrients needed by their companions or providing them shelter or structure, because large mechanical harvesters would be out of the picture.

    Likewise blight and disease. It's usually pretty obvious. You could make little machines to eat pests, but nature has been doing it for a lot longer, and the bitch is pretty good at it.

    Unfortunately, getting them to stick around doesn't happen when you're growing monocultures and periodically running them over with heavy machinery.

  • by SatanicPuppy ( 611928 ) * <Satanicpuppy.gmail@com> on Tuesday September 01, 2009 @11:09AM (#29273815) Journal

    Disagree. Sure, a combine will leave a pair of wheel ruts that are pretty deep, but that's not remotely enough to call the whole field hardpan, or kill off all the happy bacteria, soil-loosening worms, and biomass that makes a decent growth medium for crops.

    There is already a move to re-adopt no-till agriculture. Using macro machinery [google.com] doesn't prohibit that, and using micro-machinery doesn't mean that it's more likely.

    Contrast those big ruts with the sort of scorched earth devastation left behind by the kinds of swarm ants that could take down a corn field...That's not a healthy environment either.

    I agree vis a vis monocultures, etc, but I think that is a separate issue.

  • Re:On grey goo (Score:2, Insightful)

    by bhartman34 ( 886109 ) on Tuesday September 01, 2009 @11:25AM (#29273949)
    I'm not a "gray goo" expert, but I think the hypothesis rests, in part, on the idea that the replication of the "goo" will happen so fast that there won't be time for the kind of genetic diversification you'd need to avoid the gray goo scenario. And that's if the gray goo had the ability to diversify at all.

    Think of the gray goo in terms of super-adaptable humans. If humans all of a sudden started multiplying like bacteria (or even close to that pace), you'd get a lot of biodiversity, but you might not get enough diversity to get speciation before Something Really Bad (starvation, pestilence, etc.) happened.

    It's the same with the gray goo. The explosion happens so rapidly (in this hypothetical scenario) that the environment and the species are both overwhelmed. It's not such a hard thing to imagine, if you picture it on a smaller scale (e.g., an island).

    I don't know that the gray goo scenario means the Earth is literally suffocated by gray goo, either. I think it just means that the gray goo crowds out all other life until there's no life left but goo. But then the goo, in this scenario, would only die if their source of sustenance died. And that's not a given. If you had solar-powered goo, it could go on reproducing until the sun burnt out or went supernova. (I don't particularly recall how scientists now think it's going to die.)
  • by Runaway1956 ( 1322357 ) on Tuesday September 01, 2009 @11:39AM (#29274143) Homepage Journal

    Actually, there is precious little biomass in our agricultural fields today. Tilling has destroyed it. Go out into any cornfield, wheatfield, whatever. Dig down into the soil, and come up with a handfull of stuff. Examine it with your naked eye, and you'll find - dirt. That's it, just dirt.

    Go into a field that has lain fallow for a few years. Dig down, grab a handful and examine it. Worms, bugs, grubs, decaying vegetable matter - life. You don't require a microscope or special instruments to see the difference between the sterile dirt in a cornfield, and the living soil in a fallow field. If you choose to put the stuff under a microscope, the difference only becomes more obvious.

    The fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides used in monoculture fields is deadly to more than those forms of life we intend to control.

    Macro machinery may be adaptable to no-till practices, but they aren't going to solve the monoculture environments we have today. As long as monoculture is the rule, the use of chemicals will continue, which negates much of the benefit of no-till.

    Obviously, I don't view monoculture and no-till as seperate issues at all.

  • by Hoplite3 ( 671379 ) on Tuesday September 01, 2009 @11:44AM (#29274193)

    Which was probably an expression of von Neumann's self-replicating machines: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Von_Neumann_cellular_automaton [wikipedia.org]

  • by Runaway1956 ( 1322357 ) on Tuesday September 01, 2009 @12:23PM (#29274811) Homepage Journal

    "What the hell are you talking about?"

    The big picture, is all. The issue is not just harvesting a field, as evidenced from my first post. The issue is caring for the plant, throughout it's life, as well as the soil, and all the rest of the environment that the plant is grown in.

    Perhaps you didn't read and comprehend Drinkypoo's post? It's pretty clear that he sees more advantage to micro and/or nanobots than just harvesting without tractors.

    Ideally, there wouldn't even be beanfields, cornfields, etc. All of these crops would be grown in the SAME field, along with marigolds and other flowers that attract beneficial insects.

  • by inviolet ( 797804 ) <slashdotNO@SPAMideasmatter.org> on Tuesday September 01, 2009 @12:34PM (#29274973) Journal

    You see, this is the beauty of having a swarm -- you don't need any individual to have a lot of brainpower. We see the same thing in ants (and Red Sox fans), one ant has an IQ barely higher than that of a carrot but is programmed with one simple set of instructions. When millions of creatures with different simple sets of instructions end up bumping into each other and interacting, some extremely complex and "intelligent" behaviors can emerge -- ants build underground cities with temperature control and hydroponic gardens. They keep slaves and livestock. Ants wage large scale war. This is pretty impressive for a creature with only about 100 neurons each, until you realize how little each ant has to do, and that all of the higher level function comes from the millions of minute interactions between individuals, which is often personified as the "hive mind".

    Well said.

    Have you noticed that human societies also qualify as hive minds? They have epiphenominal patterns that arise due to the interactions between unwitting individuals. Even tiny changes to the interactions (i.e. to the rules) can redound as huge changes downstream. That's why it scares me when anybody wants to tinker with what is so far the wealthiest society in the history of the world.

The party adjourned to a hot tub, yes. Fully clothed, I might add. -- IBM employee, testifying in California State Supreme Court