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Tiny medical microrobots can shape-shift to navigate through your insides

Smart microrobots that can adapt to their surroundings

Taking a note out of the playbook of the classic 1966 sci-fi movie Fantastic Voyage, researchers from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL) and ETH Zurich in Switzerland think the best way to deal with problems in the human body is to inject patients with tiny intelligent entities that can swim, crawl, and otherwise navigate through the body doing whatever’s required of them.

With that in mind, they have developed adaptable microrobots that are able to change shape to get around. The hope is that these origami-inspired shape-shifting robots could one day be used for performing surgery or deliveries drugs wherever required. While not the only example of tiny medical robots we’ve covered, this nonetheless sounds like one of the most exciting.

“We developed tiny — smaller than 1 mm — microrobots that are flexible and can change their shape based on changing environmental conditions,” Bradley Nelson,pProfessor of Robotics and Intelligent Systems at ETH Zurich, told Digital Trends. “The microrobots are made of a polymer with biocompatible magnetic particles embedded in them so that, when exposed to an externally generated magnetic field, [they are able to] move through their environment.”


The microrobots are modeled on bacteria’s ability to show what the researchers term as “remarkable plasticity” in response to changing physical and chemical conditions. It’s therefore another example of nature-inspired biomimicry in action, albeit this time on a much smaller scale than we’re usually used to seeing. As an illustration of how the robots are able to adapt, they utilize a body shaped like a tube and a flat tail for paddling when moving through liquid with a low level of viscosity. Meanwhile, a helix shape is more appropriate for moving through a thicker, stickier, more viscous solution. The robots can be controlled either using an electromagnetic field or, autonomously, by moving through cavities based on fluid flow.

“We are [currently] integrating these microrobots with small catheters so that they can be released near disease sites,” Nelson said. “Some aspect of this technology will be commercialized in the future, but there is still work to do before viable business plans can be realized.”

A paper describing the work, titled “Adaptive locomotion of artificial microswimmers,” was recently published in the journal Science Advances.

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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