Conveyor takes cue from nature

Future factory conveyor belts could sense, sort and move objects on the correct travel path with massive arrays of micro-actuators that work like cilia in the human body.

Researchers from the University of the West of England see this as the future for industrial transportation systems. The group, led by Prof Andy Adamatzky, recently won a £360,000 EPSRC grant to develop its concept.

Their technology’s design uses low-power micro-actuators that collectively transport and position objects. Its inspiration comes from the biological phenomena of cilia – small hair-like structures on the surface of cells that sense local properties, such as in olfactory neurons for smell. They can also move in a coordinated wave action to pass liquid over their surface. Examples of this are in the trachea and kidneys.

Adamatzky said his team will develop control techniques and a range of algorithms that will allow the transport system to recognise and correctly move objects. For example, the system will need to sense properties such as shape, sort common characteristics, ensure objects are facing the correct direction and move them into the correct path of travel.

It is crucial that the array is able to communicate local information to enable coordinated action

The research team says that it is crucial that the actuator array is able to communicate local information about objects to other parts of the array to enable coordinated action.

Adamatzky said some of the initial commercial applications for this technology include the automotive and aviation industry. For example, he said, advanced networks of sensors could control movements of mechanical components. In addition, he said, it could be used for automated assembly of nano-devices on an industrial scale.

Outside industrial uses, Adamatzky envisioned that his team’s technology could later be applied for medical techniques such as prostheses and computer-controlled implants.