MIT's self-destructing origami robot could one day heal you from the inside

"This is the first time that a robot has been able to demonstrate a complete life cycle like this and, eventually, it'll be doing it inside your body."

Miniature origami robot can fold itself, walk around, transport materials, swim and eventually destroy itself

Researchers from MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory hope that their origami robot could eventually become small enough to fold into the human body, perform medical tasks, and then dissolve itself when finished. (IEEE Spectrum/Shuhei Miyashita)

Weighing just one third of a gram, MIT's newest self-folding origami robot looks rather cute zipping around the surface of an arm, swimming through a tiny pool, or pushing tiny pink blocks toward tiny pink targets. 

Don't be fooled by its size, however. This miniature bot packs a powerful technological punch — one that will only grow stronger as it grows smaller.

If everything goes well for researchers, it could eventually become small enough to fold into the human body, perform medical tasks, and then dissolve itself when finished — all by itself.

A team from MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory unveiled the most recent iteration of its origami robot — which has been in development since 2012 — at the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Seattle earlier this week.

As seen in the video above, the tiny bot starts out as a sheet of PVC and laser-cut polystyrene or paper structural layers with a magnet on it.

The sheet contracts when placed on a heating element, prompting the robot to fold into its active form in less than a minute. 

Then, with the help of an external magnetic field projected by embedded coils beneath it, the tiny bot is able to walk around, swim, push loads twice its own weight, dig through materials and travel up slopes simply by vibrating.

Eventually, it can be told to self-destruct through degradation — a process that involves the bot driving into a tank of acetone, where it dissolves completely save for one small magnet.

All of these tasks are performed without any sort of wire, tether or battery.

"This is the first time that a robot has been able to demonstrate a complete life cycle like this," wrote IEEE Spectrum's Evan Ackerman. "And eventually, it'll be doing it inside your body."

The research team indicates in the paper it presented at the conference Wednesday that this miniature robotic device could promise "a range of medical applications" for use "in vivo" if it could be made to dissolve within the human body.

"The dissolving process of the water-degradable model was tested under the assumption that future advancements would make the model biodegradable," the paper reads. "To construct a biodegradable model for clinical use, the contraction layer (PVC film) and the adhesive layer need to be replaced with biodegradable counterparts." 

Researchers say they're also working to make the bot more self-sufficient, if not completely autonomous.

"Such autonomous '4D-printed' robots could be used at unreachable sites, including those encountered in both in vivo and bionic biological treatment," the paper reads.


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