As It Happens

This tiny robot can walk, jump and even swim

Scientists in Germany have invented this soft, magnetic robot — and it could be used for medical purposes in the body in as few as 10 years.
The robot is about a seventh of an inch long. (Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems in Stuttgart)
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Scientists in Germany have invented a tiny robot that's capable of walking, rolling, carrying small cargo and even swimming — and it could one day be crawling around inside a human body. 

The robot is only four millimetres long and is made out of a soft elastic polymer, which allows it to move around on solid ground — and even inside liquid. And although it looks as if it is alive, it's movement is controlled magnetically. 

It was created by scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems, and their findings were published Wednesday in the journal Nature

It hasn't been tested on humans yet, but the hope is someday it can be used for medical purposes, such as delivering drugs to a target within the body.

Metin Sitti is an author of the study. He spoke with As It Happens guest host Helen Mann about the possible implications of this invention. Here is part of their conversation. 

Metin Sitti, what inspired you to make a tiny, little robot like this one?

We are inspired by very small, soft organisms because they can move in very complex environments with very diverse behaviour. And we wanted to learn from these organisms and build a new creature.

Can you describe the different things it can do?

The robot first can move on solid surfaces. And also our robot can walk as the first modality, and then it can roll to be really fast when needed. And when it sees an obstacle, the easiest and most efficient way is jumping over it, which our robot can do — like some caterpillars can also do. 

And then it can reach the watery or liquid surfaces by diving onto the surface. It can swim on the water's surface, it can dive inside and it can swim underwater like a jellyfish.

How do you manipulate this? What powers it?

So the robot is powered and executed by external magnetic devices which we build for medical applications. In that sense, the power and execution comes from outside the body of the robot where we apply the magnetic field on the robot's area in a uniform way.

What have you tested the robot on so far?

So far we've tested on a synthetic stomach model, which is very similar softness and texture and also mucus layer on the surface that is used for surgical training. And our robot can easily move on the mucus surface and also in liquid areas, because in the stomach we also have fluids. And [the robot] also can jump over the complex stomach tissue when needed.

You've basically suggested it could be used for… gastric procedures. Are there other medical uses that you envision for the future?

We have many different ideas. The very first one we will try will be in the digestive system and also your nervous system, which have the right dimensions for our robot at the moment. And the function, we will deliver drugs in the right location in controlled doses.     

And also we'd like to heat our robot remotely, which is possible because of the magnetic particles we have. And then we can stop bleeding or we can kill cancer cells using remote heating function of the robot.  

How soon do you think it is that we might actually see it able to be used in humans?

We have some … more development needed in animal models first which we will do in the next two to three years. And we'd like to have the first human testing in four to five years.

I can say that within 10 years we could see this kind of technology in real clinical use.   

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.