One day, hospital patients might be able to ingest tiny robots that deliver drugs directly to diseased tissue, thanks to research being carried out at EPFL and ETH Zurich.
A group of scientists led by Selman Sakar at EPFL and Bradley Nelson at ETH Zurich drew inspiration from bacteria to design smart, highly flexible biocompatible micro-robots. Because these devices are able to swim through fluids and modify their shape when needed, they can pass through narrow blood vessels and intricate systems without compromising on speed or maneuverability. They are made of hydrogel nanocomposites that contain magnetic nanoparticles, allowing them to be controlled via an electromagnetic field.
In an article appearing in Science Advances, the scientists describe a method for programming the robot’s shape so that it can easily travel through fluids that are dense, viscous or moving at rapid speeds.
Fabricating miniaturized robots presents a host of challenges, which the scientists addressed using an origami-based folding method. Their novel locomotion strategy employs embodied intelligence, which is an alternative to the classical computation paradigm that is performed by embedded electronic systems. “Our robots have a special composition and structure that allows them to adapt to the characteristics of the fluid they are moving through. For instance, if they encounter a change in viscosity or osmotic concentration, they modify their shape to maintain their speed and maneuverability without losing control of the direction of motion,” says Sakar.