Mini robots to transform healthcare

30 January 2018

Interview with

Professor Metin Sitti - Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems

Scientists have announced this week that they’ve built miniature, soft-bodied robots that can walk, jump and even swim inside living tissues. And while this may sound like the plot for a sci-fi horror film, the researchers behind the breakthrough believe it could transform healthcare. Lewis Thomson reports...

Lewis - In the 1966 film Fantastic Voyage, a submarine crew shrink down to microscopic size and are injected into the body of a scientist to remove a blood clot from his brain. Although far fetched, the film does highlight one of the biggest difficulties in treating medical problems: making sure treatment gets only to where it’s needed. Shrinking scientists is still some way off but could a robot come to the rescue in the meantime?
Metin Sitti, at the Max Planck Institute in Germany thinks so…

Metin - The objective of our research has been to create a new tiny robot that can have many different types of locomotion modalities inside complex environments like our body. And also we wanted to achieve not only navigation capabilities in such a robot, also we wanted to achieve new functions like carrying a cargo and delivering it in the right locations that we want.

Lewis - Resembling a tiny sheet of rubber just a few millimeters long and less than a millimeter thick, the robot the team have come up with looks quite simple but is actually incredibly sophisticated. Made of elastic silicon, the sheet is packed with microscopic magnetic particles which allow the team to use magnetic fields to control the shape of the robot and to make it move…

Metin - The robot is enclosed inside a space where we have outside many electromagnetic coil systems that we designed for medical applications, and these coils can generate uniform magnetic fields that we can change both the direction and also magnitude precisely. Then depending on this magnitude and the direction of the magnetic field, the robot changes its body shape into different deformations, and those deformations are also changed by time. That way it can undulate its body, it can deform in specific ways and then also rotate its body to create all different swimming, and walking, and jumping type of behaviours.

Lewis - The team set up obstacle courses to simulate different areas inside the human body to see how well their robot could cope with different anatomical terrains…

Metin - Our robot has seven different navigation capabilities: we can walk, we can also jump, and we can also crawl inside enclosed cavities like a vascular system or in a tubular system. Then when you get into any region where we have fluids, the robot can navigate on the water surface by skimming through it by undulating, or by climbing on the water’s surface using body shape change. Then next is we can dive under the water and swim like a jellyfish. If you count all of them we have seven capabilities or different conditions where we might have inside our body.

Lewis - The next step for the robot is to venture inside the body controlled by external magnetic sources like those used in MRI machines…

Metin - To get inside our body would enable us to reach areas that we cannot reach without surgery. This tiny robot can be swallowed or injected inside the body, or through a small incision we could put it anywhere inside our body and then we would navigate it using our magnetic control to get them to a target location first. Then using the functional capability of delivering a drug or a cargo, we could deliver a drug in a specific location for medical use that would help us a lot in cancer therapy and many other applications.

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