Biologically Inspired Miniature Robot - A Revolutionary Discovery

Published date:23 Feb 2017
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The world is an unceasing source of inspiration for robots, big and small. Recently, a miniature robot called millirobot was discovered by scientists at the Stuttgart-based Max Planck Institute or Intelligent Systems whose design inspiration comes from the soft-bodied beetle larvae, caterpillars, and jellyfishes. Capable of coping with various forms of motion, the robot can move over a surface as well as inside the body of an animal or human.

Metin Sitti, director of the Physical Intelligence Department said, “We looked at the physical mechanism of locomotion of soft-bodied caterpillars and jellyfishes and took inspiration from them. The result is that our millirobot is a mix of small-scale soft-bodied animals, such as a beetle larva, a caterpillar, a spermatozoid, and a jellyfish.”

Measuring just 4mm long, the millirobot is as flat as a sheet of paper and made of a soft elastic polymer. Its body deformations allow it to walk or roll on surfaces, jump over obstacles on the way, crawl through narrow spaces, climb through curvatures and swim in or on liquids. In addition, it can grasp objects, transport them and release them at defined locations using its body shape-change control.

Well, the secret behind the various movement capability of the millirobot is the magnetic microparticles embedded in its soft, flexible silicone rubber body. This results in a precisely defined magnetization profile, thereby allowing one to operate and control it using an external magnetic field. The silicone rubber strip can be deformed in various ways just by changing the intensity and direction of the magnetic field.

Prof. Metin Sitti and his team members including Wenqi Hu, Guo Zhan Lum, and Massimo Mastrangeli, tested the performance of the millirobot in a synthetic surgical stomach model and in a chicken meat tissue, using ultrasound imaging to keep a tab on its movements when it was not visible. The tiny object showed excellent results and Sitti hopes that one day the small-scale robot will become a standard option in healthcare, enabling targeted drug delivery or minimally invasive surgery.

Sitti said, “Our objective is that our millirobot will one day transport medication to where it is needed - similar to a parcel delivery to the front door. We aim to use it in minimally invasive medical procedures on the patient: either by swallowing the robot or by inserting it into the body through a small opening on the skin. From there, the robot can then move through the digestive tract or the bladder, or on to the heart - we envisage numerous possibilities.”

Sitti said that at present, it is not possible to access many small regions inside the human body without performing a surgery and they intend to make this a possibility. Their goal is to reach such regions non-invasively and conduct diagnostic and therapeutic operations with their miniature robots.

The researchers said that the robot will have to overcome several challenges before it can be used on patients. It has to show that it can be controlled within the human body under any circumstance. Nonetheless, they are confident that these challenges would be overcome.

Millirobots gained enormous popularity in the recent years owing to their small size and low manufacturing costs. While other robots have been developed, the millirobot has certain benefits over the others, according to the research team. One of its main benefits is that it is very versatile in its modes of locomotion. Although controlling these millirobots is difficult due to their under actuation, power constraints, and size, they are a promising platform for numerous applications.
Lisa Arcand

Written By

Lisa Arcand

I am deeply fascinated by the impact of modern technology on human life and the earth at large. Being a voracious reader, passionate writer, and a critical observer of market dynamics, I have a strong taste for the hidden science behind all arts.