Robotics

Medical micro-robots automatically change shape to swim through the body

A new breed of medical micro-robots made to explore the human body can automatically adapt to the different environments in there
A new breed of medical micro-robots made to explore the human body can automatically adapt to the different environments in there
View 2 Images
The team tested the micro-robots in narrow glass tubes, where they swam through liquids of different viscosities flowing at different rates
1/2
The team tested the micro-robots in narrow glass tubes, where they swam through liquids of different viscosities flowing at different rates
A new breed of medical micro-robots made to explore the human body can automatically adapt to the different environments in there
2/2
A new breed of medical micro-robots made to explore the human body can automatically adapt to the different environments in there

It's looking more and more likely that tiny robots could one day be swimming and crawling through your body, delivering drugs or scrubbing out your arteries. But the human body is full of wildly different environments, so any robots exploring them need to be able to adapt on the fly. Now, researchers at EPFL and ETH Zurich have developed micro-robots that can automatically morph in response to their surroundings.

The micro-robots are made of layers of biocompatible hydrogel folded up like origami – a strategy seen in many other tiny robots designed for use in the body. Tiny magnetic particles are embedded into the material, so it can be driven from outside the body using a varying electromagnetic field.

But the new robots are also designed with a touch of autonomy in getting around – they change their shape based on their surroundings, folding and unfolding themselves into the most efficient shape for the job. For example, the team found that a tube-shaped body and a flat tail to paddle was the best design for swimming through a liquid with low viscosity, while a helix shape was better at getting through more viscous fluids. To let the robot make the transition between the two shapes by itself, the team designed it so it was triggered by a higher sucrose concentration.

The team tested the micro-robots in narrow glass tubes, where they swam through liquids of different viscosities flowing at different rates
The team tested the micro-robots in narrow glass tubes, where they swam through liquids of different viscosities flowing at different rates

"Our robots have a special composition and structure that allow them to adapt to the characteristics of the fluid they are moving through," explains Selman Sakar, lead researcher on the study." For instance, if they encounter a change in viscosity or osmotic concentration, they modify their shape to maintain their speed and maneuverability without losing control of the direction of motion."

The researchers tested the robots by running them through narrow glass tubes designed to mimic blood vessels, where they swam in fluids of different viscosities that were flowing at different rates. That helped the team figure out which shapes were better in which environments.

The team has been developing micro-robots for years, but these look like the most advanced ones to date. In future, this work could lead to robots that deliver drugs directly to the parts of the body that need them, or even perform surgery as uninvasively as possible.

The research was published in the journal Science Advances, and the micro-robots can be seen in action in the video below.

Source: EPFL

Smart microrobots that can adapt to their surroundings

1 comment
Robert Schreib
?? If they are gong to use these microbots to scrub out clogged arteries inside of the human body, what if they make them out of medically-inert alloys instead of hydrofoil, and rig them so that they can be electrically empowered by externally applied radio waves? That way, they could be injected into the general bloodstream of a patient suffering from hardening of the arteries, Atheroscelerosis, which hard plaques start layering on the inside of arteries in such patients, and, whenever they are circulated through, say, an artery in his neck with this plaque layering, they could receive electrical power from a device outside of the body, and use that to empower various kinds of shaving effects, like a microscopic laser that burns away the plagues in tiny bits, an electrical pulsing specifically for disintegrating plaque, a mechanism that releases on-the-spot, very strong synthetic enzyme or detergent drugs to dissolve the plaques ONLY in that very precise location, so that that caustic agent does not harm any healthy tissues, or, eventually, if our Nanotechnology keeps advancing, a 'Pac-Man' device that BITES bits off of this layered artery plaque. All of these mostly mechanic microbots, would have a tiny iron particle inside of them, so that, when their work is done, all the arteries cleared, they can be easily removed from the patient's body by a modified kidney dialysis machine using magnetic devices. That covers it.