Scientists at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab have developed a tiny robot that could be capable of being inserted inside the human body in order to deliver drugs or perform other medical tasks at a pinpoint location and dissolve afterwards.
The device has been in development since 2012 and was presented as a prototype at the IEEE’s International Conference on Robotics and Automation.
The robot starts off as a sheet of special plastic known as shape memory polymer attached to a small neodymium magnet. It is also possible to coat the polymer with aluminum to confer it electrical conductivity.
The unfolded sheet of polymer weighs 0.31 g and has an area of 1.7 square cm. It has on it the creasing design or pattern and it is thermally activated to fold itself into the robot’s intended final shape.
In a medical application performed on a body in vivo, the magnet would allow for untethered actuation of the device under the control of an external magnetic field that makes it move by walking or swimming and perform tasks such as moving blocks and dig.
A number of problems still need to be addressed before we see this technology used in health care, but that does not diminish its potential usefulness.
First, the size is quite large even at little above 1 cm, so it needs to go down considerably to expand the field of medical applications it could be used in. At the same time, a smaller version would be harder to control remotely.
Second, the models developed so far are only able to dissolve in water or acetone and scientists are yet to come up with a biodegradable model for clinical use.
Third, and maybe the most important one, is the question of the integrated electronic parts and the small magnet that would remain after the polymer is dissolved.
The challenge of eliminating them safely from the body or removing them from the design of the robot could turn out to be the greatest one when it comes to medical use potential of this idea.
Nevertheless, it could be considered a huge step forward and a great starting point for new advances.
Image Source: Spectrum