The robot, whose movement is based on that of caterpillars and jellyfish, can move around our bodies, which could be useful in targeted drug delivery.
Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems have developed a tiny robot that can walk, jump, crawl, roll, and swim through the body. The research, published in Nature, found that the robot can navigate through obstacles, potentially in the body, offering a major advantage over current small-scale robots. So far, the robot has been tested on obstacle courses set up in the lab and the next goal is to test it for targeted drug delivery in the human body.
The group wanted to produce a robot that could perform a number of different movements inspired by caterpillars and jellyfish but the challenge was to achieve this with a small, minimalist structure. It was made possible thanks to the robot being made of an elastomer rubber, which contains tiny magnetic particles. These particles can be manipulated from outside the body by applying a magnetic field, changing the shape of the robot and allowing it to move as desired.
The scientists are concentrating on getting their robot into the digestive and urinary systems, potentially targeting conditions like Crohn’s disease and urinary tract infections. Once this has been achieved, they will begin developing their robot for the vasculature, which could support the treatment of cardiovascular diseases – the leading cause of mortality in the world, accounting for over 17 million deaths per year.
Although the current version of the robot is not fully degradable, the group believes that this can be resolved quickly. Metin Sitti, head of the Physical Intelligence Department at the Max Planck Institute, said: “We have elastomers fully degradable in the body. We have magnetic nanoparticles fully degradable in the body. It’s just a matter of integrating them.”
Last year, we published an article on the future of robotics, highlighting that they will become soft and squishy to open up a range of new applications. The German group’s research is proof of that in action, with its rubbery robot allowing it to safely be used inside the body. More and more top institutions are beginning to encourage the development of exciting technology, including Imperial College London, which will open The Invention Rooms to provide students with access to commercial prototyping resources.
I echo the thoughts of Sitti that it is incredible that such a “minimalist robot” can achieve “all different type of motion possibilities to navigate in complex environments.” In addition, Leif Ristroph, a mathematician from New York University’s Courant Institute, drew attention to the robot’s ‘pilot’: “The pilot, who we don’t see, is also quite impressive… Clearly whoever is controlling the magnetic fields has gained some hard-earned intuition and fine skills.” All-in-all, the project appears to be particularly complex but the hard work will be worth it if a new and improved approach to drug delivery can be developed.
Media – Luka Hercigonja / shutterstock.com; The New York Times/Max Planck Institute