by Jake Meyer
Nanotechnology is a vague term that encompasses a wide range of technologies. Some of the technologies may be as mundane as a material used to strengthen a tennis racket, such as the carbon nanotubes used in the Babolat NS Drive Tennis Racket. But the term nanotechnology is also used to include inventions that appear to be science fiction. One possible use of nanotechnology is to create tiny robots that can be introduced into the human body to a number of medical procedures such as: deliver drugs, clean arteries of cholesterol, or to transport oxygen in the blood stream. Although it may be many years before we have tiny robots coursing through our veins, advances in science and technology are bringing medical nanorobots closer to reality.
An article in published in Nature last week, titled "Miniature Devices: Voyage of the Microrobots," describes how scientists at the Institute of Robotics and Intelligent Systems in Zurich, Switzerland may have overcome three obstacles in the way of realizing a future filled with medical nanorobots – "how to make, power, and steer them." To propel the robot, the scientists created an artificial flagellum – a biological propeller that allows bacterium to swim. The artificial flagellum is attached to a magnetic "head," and when the robot is placed in an oscillating magnetic field, the flagellum spins, propelling the robot through liquids at a blazing speed of 1-2 micrometers per second. The magnetic field that provides the power for the robot also provides a method for controlling the robot. By changing the direction of the magnetic field, the direction of the movement of the robot is changed.
By demonstrating solutions to the questions of how to make, power, and steer nanorobots, the possibility of medical nanorobots is closer to being realized. However, nanotechnology inventions like medical nanorobots present interesting challenges for our current patent system. For example, the U.S. patent system operates under a theory of strict liability for patent infringement. This means that intent or knowledge is irrelevant in determining whether someone has infringed a patent for making, using, or selling the patented invention. Medical nanorobots could be transferred from one person to another through a sneeze, blood transfusion, or to a child through birth. Unknowingly, this person may now have nanorobots in his or her body, and may be subject to a suit for patent infringement by the patent owner for using the patented invention. As new advances are made in the field of nanotechnology long standing rules in patent law such as strict liability may need to be reconsidered.