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The (good) Monsters Inside You

July 28, 2022

They’re not under the bed, or hiding in the closet. It’s actually worse than that. They are, potentially, right inside your body!

We are speaking here, of monsters in the classical sense. Of fantastical creatures with millipede legs, feet like plant burrs, locomoting via magnetic current, able to roll, crawl or swim ... and with capabilities far beyond their tiny size. Chimeras with features so bizarre even 6-year-olds could not dream them up.

But the good news is that such monsters are friendly monsters, and on our side. They are the creation of researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems, and they hold revolutionary potential for medical care.

Small robots capable of moving around inside the human body have been developed for some time, and are already in use in multiple capacities. They can deliver some medications and assist in photographing deep recesses of the body, among other tasks. But improvements are needed if they are ever to realize their promise.

When first conceived, it was hoped that tiny micro- or nanobots could be useful in a wide application of precise drug delivery actions. Penetrating solid tumors, for instance, or traveling to targeted locations for dispersal of medicines. The challenge, as it turned out, was navigating a tiny device through the many environments present in a living body.

In the 1966 film, Fantastic Voyage, a miniaturized submarine with human crew travels through a patient’s bloodstream to attack a clot. In real life, the force of circulating blood would make such travel impossible. Surface adhesion is a critical requirement for any device that needs to propel itself through wet, mucus-covered expanses.

This is why the innovations of the Max Planck scientists are so consequential. They developed a robot able to securely traverse internal organs–without damaging them with every step. Its tiny robot feet are spiked, similar to the projections on weed burrs that allow them to attach to your socks. Because they are constructed of chitosan, they enable a ‘soft climb,’ one without a piercing grip on surfaces.

The new device travels in an unusual fashion, which its inventors describe as “peeling and loading.” It first plants a foot, and then flips its body over that support in order to place another foot. In this fashion it is able to move along. So, a somersaulting robot!

The robot’s body is constructed of metal, which allows it to be guided by magnetic current. It has been successfully tested on animals, where it traveled the entire length of a pig’s digestive tract. The new nanobot can convey a cargo of up to 20 times its own weight, and up to 3 times its own size.

Additionally, the fact that this robot is “soft-bodied” rather than rigid, permits even more potential uses. It can be deformed to fit or squeeze against obstacles it encounters on its journey. Researchers hope that devices using this technology can be used to deliver not only medications, but also additional equipment such as miniaturized wireless sensors. In applications beyond the medical field, construction engineering is an obvious fit. Narrow pipes could be accessed and repairs made or remotely inspected.

With continued refinements and additional testing, nanobots using this technology may soon be crawling through your body–delighting 6-year-olds and scientists alike.

For students interested in developing robots and furthering the advancements of the medical field and beyond, Capitol Technology University offers an expansive robotics and mechatronics program of study that allows hands-on building experience and practical applications of robotics concepts. To learn more about these and other Capitol programs, visit captechu.edu and check out the full list of courses and degrees offered. Many courses are available both on campus and online. For more information, contact admissions@captechu.edu, for Undergraduate, gradadmit@captechu.edu for Master's programs, and doctorate@captechu.edu for Doctoral programs.


Works cited:

King, A. (2022, March 29). Miniature Medical Robots Step Out from sci-fi. Nature News. Retrieved July 28, 2022, from https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-022-00859-0

Yirka, B. (2022, May 30). A millirobot for climbing around in the gut to deliver drugs. Tech Xplore - Technology and Engineering news. Retrieved July 28, 2022, from https://techxplore.com/news/2022-05-millirobot-climbing-gut-drugs.html

Wireless Soft Millirobots for climbing three-dimensional-science. (n.d.). Retrieved July 28, 2022, from https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/sciadv.abn3431