Pangolin-inspired robot can roll around your guts administering treatments

Flexing device works where surgeons find hard to reach

Scientists have developed a robot that can perform safe and minimally invasive medical procedures inside the body using a magnetically controlled folding and flexing structure.

Inspired by the pangolin, a small scaly anteater native to Africa, India and southeast Asia, the millirobots are 1cm wide, 2cm long and only 0.2mm thick. The keratin-coated creatures are famously able to roll into a ball despite the rigidity of their scales.

Similarly, the robots built by the team led by Metin Sitti, director of the Physical Intelligence Department at Germany's Max Planck Institute, are designed to allow their tiny robots to flex, also aiding locomotion.

According to a study in Nature Communications this week, the untethered, flexible robots could get to regions in the body surgeons currently find hard to reach, including the stomach and small intestine. They possess heating, shape-morphing, and rolling capabilities, the researchers said.

They are also able to release cargo onto the tissues, which could be used to deliver drugs in the future, by way of releasing magnetically held cargo.

Sensitive viewers beware

Readers who think they have the stomach for it can see a YouTube video of the little robots wriggling along a mock-up of an intestine which wouldn't look out of place on a 1970s Dr Who set.

Youtube Video

"We demonstrate advanced robotic functionalities, such as selective cargo release, in situ demagnetisation, hyperthermia and mitigation of bleeding, on tissue phantoms and ex vivo tissues," the researchers said in the paper.

Advances in robot-enabled treatment are coming along at a frightening pace. In 2020, US electronics engineers and physicists built micrometer-scale swimming robots that use a new type of actuator, forming the basis for a tiny automaton that could be injected into humans to perform minor medical procedures. Powered by onboard silicon photovoltaics, the robots, which are less than 0.1mm in size, wriggle when stimulated by laser light. Built from common semiconductor material, one million of the critters could be produced from a single four-inch wafer, a research team led by Marc Miskin, assistant professor of electrical and systems engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, found.

Another research team built a 2.4g robot capable of eye surgery, inspired by the ancient paper-folding art of origami. They showed the machine was able to trace a square of 0.5mm by 0.5mm and reduced the deviation from the desired trajectory by 68 percent compared to manual operation. Robot-assisted surgery can prove more stable and accurate than manual surgery, while at the same time robots do not tire like human surgeons and are better at scaling down procedures. ®

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