By now, you may or may not have heard of ANTS (Autonomous Nanotechnology Swarm), and the TETWalker robot prototype that has undergone a series of
tests since January at various sites around the world. The TETWalker, a four-sided pyramid-shaped robot, propels itself by throwing off it's center
of gravity until it topples over. It is hoped that a miniaturized version of this, using MEMS (Micro Electrical Mechanical Systems) and Carbon
Nanotubes. A swarm of these nanites would be have incredible maneuverability, structural integrity, and be able to construct itself into a variety of
shapes. But are these dreams really feasible?
These miniature TETwalkers, when joined together in "swarms," will have great advantages over current systems. The swarm has abundant flexibility
so it can change its shape to accomplish highly diverse goals. For example, while traveling through a planet's atmosphere, the swarm might flatten
itself to form an aerodynamic shield. Upon landing, it can shift its shape to form a snake-like swarm and slither away over difficult terrain. If it
finds something interesting, it can grow an antenna and transmit data to Earth. Highly-collapsible material can also be strung between nodes for
temperature control or to create a deployable solar sail.
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The answer is: Yes... but not for a while.
The current known limit of a carbon nanotube is 0.4 nanometers before it begins to collapse. The temperature threshold of the tube is dependant on how
it was created, but can easily reach 600+ Celsius. Mars' paltry 80-degree surface temperature on its hottest days will pose no threat to structural
integrity. When coiled, the nano tubes have an ability to act as their own suspension, electrical conductor, resistor, and have an incredible strength
to them. Such coils could be compressed and extended to increase the size of each face in each pyramidal ANT.
But how do you control such powerful potential for a machine? We needn't worry about Grey Goo scenarios, where the nanotechnology grows out of
control and "eats" a planet. The hardest part is going to be figuring out how to coordinate the movement of billions of individual robots at once.
The Operating System code for this project would have to have an unprecedented number of variables and functions, while being tiny enough to be
processed by the limited processing space of each bot. Unlike a "particle" generator (such as would be used for CGI waterfalls), the nanites
themselves cannot just be told to "go that way" and serve any useful purpose. Each individual robot will have to be analyzed for damaged, disjoined,
the undamaged bots rejoined, and even the simple act of building a structure will have to be directed within the limits and confines of both the bots
movements and intelligence.
The second obstacle will be the power source. Not only will enough power be needed to move these billions of bots, but also the power source itself
will need to be just as mobile. Solar technology is a possibility, but perhaps not a viable one due to the size needed for a photovoltaic cell, and
their fragile nature. So, solar power is likely out until we can make a nano-sized solar cell. This leaves a difficult gap in a critical area, as
power determines the size of the bot, the capabilities built into it, the mission objectives, and the mission length.
Until this is figured out, the entire plan is mere theory.
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