Subatomic superhero? Scientists create robot with the nano touch - and it could lead to a gold rush

Chinese researchers help international team develop world’s first robot able to handle nano-sized objects

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 November, 2015, 6:40pm
UPDATED : Monday, 12 June, 2017, 12:53pm

Tiny robots may soon be able to extract strands of DNA or clone animals with the speed of a car assembly line after a joint team from China and Canada recently developed the world’s first industrial robot with arms capable of picking up objects measuring just nanometers in length.

Some similar tasks can already be conducted by hand with the aid of microscopes, but they are time-consuming, labor-intensive and known to have high failure rates.

A team led by Professor Yu Sun at the University of Toronto in Canada claim to have made the breakthrough in collaboration with the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Harbin Institute of Technology.

READ MORE: Chinese team expects to have first robot in space by 2020 to fix orbiting satellites

A commercial model of their so-called “nano-manipulation system” was demonstrated this week at the ongoing three-day World Robot Exhibition in Beijing, an industry expo.

The robot was produced by HIT Robot Group in China’s northern Heilongjiang province. It cost more than six million yuan (US$940,000) to make and is about the size of a medium pizza.

One of the problems hindering research in this area has been that no motor was able to make the extremely small robotic arms perform the delicate movements required, the researchers said.

They solved this problem by connecting the robot’s arms to a special kind of electric motor called a piezo motor. This uses piezo ceramic materials that can be shrunk or expanded in size when charged with electric currents. The motors were able to move the arms in any direction to within 1 nanometre accuracy, they said.

They encountered an even bigger challenge when dealing with sensors, as these had to be sensitive enough to discern the arms’ exact location with a margin of error of less than 1 nanometre - or about the distance of 10 atoms placed side by side.

This hurdle has prevented much nano-robotics technology from finding its way into commercial use, but it now seems to have been cleared thanks to the work of Dr Zhou Chao, who works at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Automation in Beijing.

Zhou, who invented the hurdle-clearing new sensor, said he was inspired by a weight scale.

“The key to solving the most difficult problems we face may be right in front of your face, but we often ignore it because it looks too ordinary,” he said.

He said that Chinese scientists have come up with numerous innovations the world is ignorant of because they were not considered useful enough to merit funding.

“In the past, most of the ideas just gathered dust in science labs because they weren’t needed,” he said.

“Instead of using them, Chinese manufacturers were content to just copy technology from overseas.”

That has changed in recent years as more Chinese companies seek to compete on an equal footing with their Western counterparts in the global market for high-end products.