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Ciliary cell-inspired microrobots may swim faster and may carry more cargo

Nature is a source of infinite inspiration. From submarines to solar panels, natural designs influence engineers so much so that the field has earned its own name: biomimetics.

A team of researchers at Daegu Gyeongbuk Institute of Science and Technology (DGIST), South Korea have once again turned to nature to design a new type of microrobot. Using hairlike cilia, these microrobots may be able to swim faster and carry more weight than conventional alternatives, offering new potential for drug delivery within the human body. The team published its work in the journal Nature earlier this year.

“In general, nature is the resource for new ideas,” professor Chio Hong-soo told Digital Trends. “Prokaryotic and eukaryotic microrobots were reported before but not the ciliary type. My student, Kim Sangwon, and I got an idea to mimic cilia just because nobody did it before and we have the … technique to fabricate the ciliary structure.”

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Cilia are those small, whiplike structures that stream off of eukaryotic cells and help propel them through fluids like the oars of a viking longship.

Hong-soo and Sangwon used precise metal coating methods and 3D laser technology to cover their tiny robots with nickel and titanium hairs. With magnetic attraction for guidance and flagella for propulsion, the new design can travel between 8.6 and 25.8 times faster than conventional microrobots and could potentially carry more cargo, such as medicine, due to their ability to rotate freely.

“The ciliary microrobot seems like they can move faster in a highly viscous fluid environment,” Hong-soo said. “And we are currently testing the robots for carrying more weight. The robot also have positive effect to overcome friction force between the robot and substrate.”

There’s still plenty of work to be done before these devices wiggle their way into our bodies, Hong-soo said, as they test the devices for medical applications. Nonetheless, he’s optimistic that they may one day lead to more efficient and effective methods of drug delivery.