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Ingestible ‘Origami Robots’ may one day perform microsurgery inside you

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are developing an ingestible robot capable of patching wounds, dislodging foreign objects, or even potentially carrying out microsurgery on soft tissue.

Described as an “origami robot,” MIT’s device would start folded up inside a frozen ice capsule, and then unfold and go to work when the capsule is swallowed and the ice melts.

“We are developing medical technology that is less invasive and more autonomous and thus can provide safe and consistent outcomes,” Daniela Rus, a professor at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), told Digital Trends. “The biggest challenge is how to build a capable medical robot that is clinically safe. Addressing this challenge requires finding biocompatible materials, safe means of transportation in the body, a way to reconfigure the robot from pill shape to unfolded shape, and precise multi-mode control for the location and function of the robot.”

The proposed robot will be just one centimeter long and weigh only one third of a gram, but be able to carry loads twice its weight. It will reportedly be controlled using magnetic forces, with human operators using remote control joysticks to alter the field and thereby move the robot around inside a patient to reach the right area. The robot would consist of a tiny neodymium magnet, encased in a biodegradable frame — possibly made of the same pig intestine material used for sausage casing, or a vegetarian equivalent.

Image used with permission by copyright holder

“It will take some time to go from research laboratory to usable systems,” Professor Rus continues. “Before in-vivo testing — e.g. on a pig — we need to work on improving various technical issues including control accuracy. After that, we expect 3-4 years for animal tests and another 3-4 years with real humans.”

It might be a few years away, but something tells me that parents of foreign object-swallowing kids in 2024 are going to be very grateful for this kind of technology. And, hey, until then at least we get the above video demo to marvel over!

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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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