Shape-shifting, remote-controlled microsurgeon robots come to life

It’s been almost 60 years since celebrity-physicist Richard Feynman first popularized the idea of surgical micromachines. “[A friend of mine] says that, although it is a very wild idea, it would be interesting in surgery if you could swallow the surgeon,” Feynman said at a presentation to the American Physical Society in 1959.

“You put the mechanical surgeon inside the blood vessel and it goes into the heart and ‘looks’ around … It finds out which valve is the faulty one and takes a little knife and slices it out. Other small machines might be permanently incorporated in the body to assist some inadequately functioning organ.

“Now comes the interesting question: How do we make such a tiny mechanism?” he added. “I leave that to you.”

A team of researchers from École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and ETH Zurich (ETHZ) have since taken on Feynman’s challenge, building remote-controlled microrobots designed to enter the body, deliver drugs, and perform medical operations. They published their work last week in the journal Nature Communications.

“Thanks to the recent advancements in nanotechnology and materials science, it is now possible to manufacture such wirelessly powered tiny machines,” EPFL scientist and co-author of the paper, Selman Sakar, told Digital Trends. “Our objective here is to develop a methodology to rapidly design and build micromachines with a variety of bio-inspired architectures …”

Along with Hen-Wei Huang and Bradley Nelson of ETHZ, Sakar chose to model their device’s on a bacterium that causes sleeping sickness, equipping the microrobots with flagellum for propulsion and the ability to conceal these appendages when heated by a laser. Their biocompatible hydrogel and magnetic-nanoparticle bodies make them soft, flexible, and reactive to electromagnetic fields. That means these machines can be controlled remotely and change shape to fit through small cavities.

“We decided to add shape-shifting as an extra feature because the size, geometry, and material properties of the environment within a given medical procedure can drastically change,” Sakar explained. “We believe engineering a microrobot with a fixed morphology and locomotion mode cannot negotiate these changing environments.”

Although small, the team’s current microrobots are still too big to travel through blood vessels, but Sakar insists they can scale the devices down to cellular size. “We believe these next generation microrobots will be able to navigate within the gastrointestinal track, and certain parts of the endocrine and reproductive system,” he said. “Targeted delivery of therapeutic payload is the most promising biomedical application area.”

To be sure, these microrobots aren’t the first devices designed in the vein of Feynman’s presentation. Over the past few years, researchers such as David Gracias from Johns Hopkins University and Bradley Nelson from ETHZ have shown that such devices can function in vivo. Further research is required before we’ll find these microsurgeons swimming through our bloodstream though.

“Completing animal testing and proceeding to the clinical trials can take another five to 10 years,” Sakar said, “but it is definitely on the horizon.”

Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Write music with your voice, make homemade cheese

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!
Movies & TV

The best movies on Amazon Prime right now (March 2019)

Prime Video provides subscribers with access to a host of fantastic films, but sorting through the catalog can be an undertaking. Luckily, we've done the work for you. Here are the best movies on Amazon Prime Video right now.
Business

4 women innovators who are using tech to help others live better lives

Meet four women leaders who are not only at the forefront of technology today, but also using tech — from robotics and medicine to food and undergarments — to help others.
Emerging Tech

Scientists discover a strange shape that blocks almost all sound

Called an “acoustic meta-material,” the shape was developed based on a mathematically modeled design that enables it to cancel up to 94 percent of sound by reflecting certain frequencies back to their source.
Emerging Tech

Gorgeous image of the Cosmic Bat nebula leaves us starry-eyed

The "Cosmic Bat" nebula has been captured in beautiful detail by the European Southern Observatory. Formally known as NGC 1788, the nebula is two thousand light-years away in a dark corner of the Orion constellation.
Emerging Tech

Super telescope captures supermassive black holes forming billions of years ago

The Subaru Telescope in Hawaii has captured evidence of supermassive black holes forming in the ancient universe. Astronomers discovered 83 quasars powered by supermassive black holes from billions of years ago.
Emerging Tech

Mind-bending model shows Venus isn’t our nearest neighbor — it’s Mercury

Every textbook and table on the internet agrees -- the closest planet to Earth is Venus. But a new mathematical model shows that this is wrong. In fact, the planet closest to us on average is Mercury.
Emerging Tech

Desk lamps take on a new task by converting their light to power

What if we could charge devices using light from indoor sources like desk lamps? A group of scientists working on a technology called organic photovoltaics (OPVs) aim to do just that.
Emerging Tech

Body surrogate robot helps people with motor impairments care for themselves

A team from Georgia Tech has come up with an assistant robot to help people who have severe motor impairments to perform tasks like shaving, brushing their hair, or drinking water.
Emerging Tech

New Hubble image displays dazzling Messier 28 globular cluster

Messier 28 is a group of stars in the constellation of Sagittarius, located 18,000 light-years from our planet. Thousands of stars are packed tightly together in this sparkling image.
Emerging Tech

Cosmic dust bunnies: Scientists find unexpected ring around Mercury

A pair of scientists searching for a dust-free region near the Sun have made an unexpected discovery: a vast cosmic dust ring millions of miles wide around the tiny planet Mercury.
Emerging Tech

Take a dip in the Lagoon Nebula in first image from SPECULOOS instrument

The European Southern Observatory has released the first image collected by their new SPECULOOS instrument, and it's a stunning portrait of the Lagoon Nebula, a swirling cloud of dust and gas where new stars are born.
Emerging Tech

Robot assistants from Toyota and Panasonic gear up for the Tokyo Olympics

Japan plans to use the 2020 Olympics to showcase a range of its advanced technologies. Toyota and Panasonic are already getting in on the act, recently unveiling several robotic designs that they intend to deploy at the event.
Emerging Tech

A.I.-generated text is supercharging fake news. This is how we fight back

A new A.I. tool is reportedly able to spot passages of text written by algorithm. Here's why similar systems might prove essential in a world of fake news created by smart machines.