Future Focus


Researchers create Transformer-style robot that travels through body to cure disease

The technology carries payloads directly to the relevant site and is controlled by magnets
Scientists at Northwestern University have created a Transformer-style robot that travels through the human body to cure diseases. The tiny machine is controlled by magnets, carrying payloads directly to a tumour, blood clot, or infection. Set to revolutionise medicine, the ‘millibot’ may even come to replace pills or intravenous injections that can cause lifethreatening side effects.
The researchers designed this robot crab while experimenting with mechanisms to control robots, without the need for any onboard electricity or hydraulic parts. Their movement instead relies on a metal alloy that can change shape with heat, and can then return to its original position afterwards.
According to BBC Science Focus magazine, the robots were created by engineers Professor John Rogers, Professor Yonggang Huang, and their PhD students. The devices are less than a millimeter wide, and are small enough to move around arteries and veins in the body in search of blockages. The crab’s design was initially a flat sheet of a plastic polymer, with the body, legs, and chelae (or pincers) cut out. The engineers then lay the metal alloy on top of each part that they wanted to move.
The team then bent the 2D structure into a 3D robot, and its metal joints were able to remember its original flat shape.
The mechanism brings us closer to medical robots which are able to clear clogged arteries from within, or able to find and destroy cancerous tumours inside the body. However, Professor Rogers has said that the robots are not currently suitable for use in the body: “Our robots are operating in a terrestrial mode: they’re walking on solid surface. But most biomedical applications will probably be in a fluid environment, where you’ll need swimmers.”