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Micro-Scale ‘Soft Robots’ Could Soon Be Navigating Our Bodies
December 6, 2013
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(Photo: International School for Advanced Studies of Trieste)

People of a certain age may remember Fantastic Voyage, the1966 sci-fi flick in which a miniaturized vessel must journey into a man's body to remove a blood clot so he can awaken from a coma and reveal vital Cold War intelligence. Or, if you’re from a younger generation, perhaps you recall The Magic School Bus shrinking down to a cellular level, with Ms. Frizzle taking her class on an educational journey through the digestive tract.

Either way, that kind of super-invasive anatomical exploration isn't so far from becoming a reality — for robots at least.

new paper published in the Journal of the Mechanics and Physics of Solids investigates how so-called "soft robots" could navigate their way through our bodies. Unlike conventional mechanical devices, these robots of tomorrow would have to be as flexible as biological tissues.

“Imagine trying to miniaturize a device made up of levers and cogwheels: you can’t go below a certain minimal size,” Antonio De Simone, a co-author on the study, explained in a press release. “Instead, by mimicking biological system, we can go all the way down to cell size, and this is exactly the direction research is taking," said De Simone, a professor of structural mechanics at the International School for Advanced Studies of Trieste in Italy.

Specifically, De Simone and his colleague Marino Arroyo are attempting to mimic euglenoids, single-celled organisms with whip-like tails that are commonly found in freshwater (they created this video simulation of euglenoid movement to understand how tiny robots could emulate them). 

(Photo: Alexei Kouprianov/Wikimedia Commons)

The robots have not yet been built, but the research is being taken pretty seriously: De Simone was recently awarded a €1.3 million ($1.89 million) European Research Council Advanced Grant to explore how the efficient locomotion of unicellular organisms could advance micro-robotics.

As for the possibilities of these advancements? De Simone and Arroyo say they imagine tiny soft robots delivering drugs directly to where they’re needed in our bodies, or reopening blocked blood vessels. They could even help close wounds at a cellular level, the scientists say.

Via Science Daily


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