Robots That Heal and Then Self-Destruct



Robots that heal and then dissolve inside of a human body, or otherwise self-destruct, have been under development for several years now, and MIT has come up with some that look like origami creations and weigh in at well under a gram. The origami-like creations developed by the MIT researchers are remarkably powerful for their size, and are able to swim, crawl on a person’s arm, climb up ropes, and carry loads twice as heavy as they weigh.

The miniature robots are too large to be called “nanobots,” but the researchers at MIT hope to eventually make them smaller and smaller, until they are the size where they can travel through the human body and be tools a doctor can use to operate on humans. The tiny tools of future surgeons have been under development by MIT since 2012.

The robots that the MIT researchers have created are marvels unto themselves, but the aim of the researchers is to make them even more powerful as they become smaller. Also, the shape of the creations will allow them to fold in upon themselves and become even more compact. After they have performed whatever medical mission they are tasked with carrying out, they will then self-destruct by dissolving within a person’s body. In other words, similar to living organisms, they will complete their “life cycles,” and then cease to exist.

The tiny robots made their grand debut in Seattle, Washington, a few days ago, at the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society’s 2015 ICRA conference. They start off as being PVC sheets, layers of paper or polystyrene which have been precision-cut using lasers, and miniature magnets to help give them the ability to move.

These particular robots do not, at least currently, navigate under their own power. After they are completed, they are heated on a heating element, and fold up in under 60 seconds. They are not controlled by internal circuitry, but through the use of four embedded electromagnetic coils beneath the robots and an external magnetic field. The tiny wonders move through vibrating or oscillating, and can travel at speeds of up to four centimeters per second.

The Success of the Robots Determined by the Materials Used to Create Them

The ultimate success of the MIT-designed robots will be determined by a variety of things, such as the materials used to create them. The materials that they are currently composed of will not, of course, dissolve within the human bloodstream.

Right now, the robots enter into a solution of acetone, which serves to dissolve them, except for the tiny magnets that are left behind. Besides getting the robots ever smaller, building them from materials that will eventually safely biodegrade inside the bodies of humans is another challenge that the MIT researchers face.

This search for biodegradable materials to use in constructing the robots is necessary to enable them to be used to heal patients in as noninvasive of a manner as possible. As the paper that the MIT research team published notes, for the creations to dissolve in humans, “biodegradable counterparts,” will have to be used.

Making the Robots More “Self-Sufficient” is Yet Another Goal

After the MIT researchers hit upon suitable biodegradable materials to use in creating the robots, and they are made smaller, another goal is to design the miniature marvels more “self-sufficient.” If they could be designed to navigate entirely or almost entirely on their own, the devices could be used to reach internal areas of humans and complete whatever task might be required to operate on a person and heal him or her, without having to go under the so-called “knife.”

If the MIT research team can eventually make the origami-like robots smaller, using biodegradable materials, and also make them more self-sufficient, one day in the near future they might be crawling under the skin, so to speak, of patients everywhere. Their ability to travel through a human’s bloodstream and then dissolve will also likely shorten the healing process by making necessary surgery more noninvasive.

Written By Douglas Cobb

Sources: MIT’s self-destructing origami robot could
one day heal you from the inside Tiny Origami Robot Can Fold Itself
and Self-Destruct
Photo Courtesy of General Physics Laboratory’s Flickr Page
(Taken by Evan Ackerman) – Creative Commons License 2.0