The Fog of Utility

Photo by Robynne Hu on Unsplash

I’m a big fan of Lego. As a kid in the 1970s, I had a cardboard box filled with bricks of all different shapes and colours. Individually, the pieces of Lego were small and not very useful, but with a little imagination, I could use them to build almost anything.

On 14th March, The Engineer reported that physicists at Bath University, in collaboration with a team from Birmingham University, found that coating soft material in ‘active matter’ allowed them to control its movement and function more effectively. 

Imagine a ball of soft material, such as rubber. Left to its own devices, it will remain in a sphere. But if you coat that sphere in a layer of nano-robots, and programme the robots to work together, you can distort the ball into any pre-determined shape you require. And if you use a lot of these ‘soft robots’ together, then just like with Lego, you can use them to construct larger machines.

Going forward, the researchers will apply this concept to design robots with soft appendages, better able to manipulate delicate materials—which would appear to open up all sort of possibilities in the field of surgery and internal medicine. They also intend to study what happens when several active solids are packed together, with an eye to developing a new generation of machines constructed by individual units cooperating to determine the way the machine operates.

Extrapolating this idea into the future, we can imagine a time where construction crews wouldn’t need a whole fleet of lorries, JCBs, drills, and other tools, each designed to perform a single function. Instead, they would use a ‘utility fog’ of remotely programmed matter to construct the tool or machine they needed for each particular task, in exactly the way I used to build diggers and cranes out of Lego. And when we’ve finished with them, they would dissolve back into their default state again, ready to be programmed into the next required shape.

Or perhaps, in a time of natural disaster, we could use this kind of directable matter to create temporary shelters, mobile hospitals, and rubble-clearing machinery. The fact softer materials are at the heart of these programmable balls means they could be used to treat casualties without the need for risky field surgery, forming casts for broken limbs, and maybe even installing stents in heart patients without the need to crack their chests.

The Bath University researchers also plan to consider applying this technology to create self-swimming materials. Such a construction, able to propel itself through water and capable of using delicate appendages to manipulate materials, might well resemble an amorphous octopus. Schools of them could be sent out to tend fish stocks, farm seaweed, and maintain underwater cables. Planes could carry reserves of soft robots that could form self-propelled lifejackets or rafts in the case of a water landing.  

Taking this all a step further, we can speculate about the possibility of filling the atmosphere with programmable nano-robots. Wherever you are on Earth, you can summon a device from apparently thin air. Need a hammer? Use your phone to programme nearby machines to form one.

A team of scientists at the University of Toronto are developing smart and adaptive materials with self-healing properties. These materials are made up of networks of interconnected, micron-sized particles. When one of the particles is damaged, the surrounding particles send it signals to help it heal. The team has already created a prototype of a self-healing material that can be used to coat objects like car bumpers and door handles, but we can also imagine future generations of this tech being used to create self-repairing car tyres, solar panels, and aircraft hulls.

Today’s potential applications for smart matter include, but are not limited to, communications devices, energy storage and generation systems, biomedical implants, and environmental remediation technologies, but the possibilities for the future are almost limitless.

However it’s used, utility fog is sure to play a big role in the future of science, engineering and technology.

This article was originally published in The Engineer.

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Author: Gareth L Powell