A groundbreaking study published this week reveals the development of a small robot inspired by pangolins, designed to perform safe and minimally invasive medical procedures inside the human body. These untethered soft robots have the potential to access hard-to-reach regions, such as the stomach and small intestine, by morphing their shape.

Contrary to the conventional perception of robots as rigid, metallic structures filled with circuitry, one of the most exciting advancements in robotics lies in the realm of “soft robotics.” This field focuses on animated materials capable of performing tasks without the typical wiring and circuitry. An example is the recently introduced “gelbot,” a heat-manipulated soft robot capable of inching along.

Miniature untethered robots operating inside the human body can tap into remotely available energy sources, such as light, magnetic fields, or acoustics, and convert them into usable forms of energy to execute various tasks. Taking inspiration from pangolins, Metin Sitti and a team of researchers at the Max Planck Institute in Munich have designed a millirobot measuring 1 cm by 2 cm by 0.2 mm. This robot features an overlapping scale design akin to pangolins, along with on-demand heating, shape-morphing, and rolling capabilities.

In proof-of-concept experiments conducted in the laboratory, these robots successfully heated to 70°C and performed medical treatments on tissues. Their potential clinical applications include hyperthermia for cancer treatment and addressing bleeding in hard-to-reach regions. Additionally, the robots can demagnetize to release cargo onto tissues, opening possibilities for drug delivery in the future. The ability of these robots to roll and tumble is triggered by external magnetic stimulation, which charges particles within their pangolin-like scales. This stimulation allows them to transition from a flat to a curled posture, enabling locomotion.

While further testing is necessary, this technology holds promising potential as a valuable clinical tool for delivering therapeutic payloads and heat therapy applications. The development of these pangolin-inspired soft robots represents a significant leap towards safer and more effective minimally invasive medical procedures.

By Impact Lab