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Engineering science PhD students (l-r) Ian Foulds, See-Ho Tsang and Daniel Sameoto have created nano-scale plastic ‘soccer players’ six times smaller than an amoeba.

Nanobot team scores award

July 12, 2007

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Move over, David Beckham, ‘cause you ain’t seen nothin’ like the award-winning soccer team that engineering science PhD students Daniel Sameoto, See-Ho Tsang and Ian Foulds assembled for a competition in Atlanta, Ga. this month.

Then again, you can’t see their ‘players’ at all without a microscope. Known as nanobots, the nano-scale robots are six times smaller than an amoeba and they play with a ‘soccer ball’ no wider than a human hair on a ‘field’ that can fit on a grain of rice.

"They work like minuscule inch worms," says team captain Sameoto of the tiny mechanical athletes who competed in the Nanogram category at the 2007 RoboCup.

The U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) hosts the soccer-themed annual competition to foster innovations and advances in artificial intelligence and intelligent robotics.

The team came home with the Founders Award for Innovative Discovery. "The organizers were fairly impressed with our hard work and innovation," says Tsang, although their nanobot squad, Whirling Dervish, failed to live up to expectations in the two-millimetre goal-to-goal dash. An amplifier prodded by U.S. customs officials during a pre-flight search failed to work.

This year’s inaugural nano teams, competing under an optical microscope on an electrode-equipped silicon microchip field via manual controls and a viewing monitor, demonstrated the feasibility and accessibility of technologies for fabricating micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS).

The nano competition featured three events: a two-millimetre goal-to-goal dash, a slalom around several ‘defenders’ (polymer posts), and a drill requiring the robo-lads to ‘dribble’ as many ‘nanoballs’ as possible into the goal within three minutes.

The competition included teams from Carnegie Mellon University, the U.S. Naval Academy and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. The Swiss won.

Team SFU’s innovative approach used plastic instead of silicon to fabricate their soccer squad. It was a special polymer MEMS process developed by SFU researchers. Their goal was to push the idea that polymer micromachining technology should be a much more significant contributor to the field in the future.

Nanobots may seem like sophisticated toys now, says the students’ advisor, engineering science professor Ash Parameswaran, director of SFU’s Institute for Micromachine and Microfabrication Research. "But in 20 or 30 years they could be going into human bodies to clean out cholesterol deposits or a thousand other applications."

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