A creepy crawly-like robot that travels through the body to cure disease has been created by scientists. The 3D-printed machine is made out of gelatin – and powered by nothing more than temperature. It was inspired by the inchworm – bringing a ‘kind of intelligence’ to the field of soft robotics. The smart device could replace pills or intravenous injections that can cause life-threatening side effects.
Senior Author Professor David Gracias, of Johns Hopkins University in the United States (US), said, “It seems very simplistic but this is an object moving without batteries, without wiring, without an external power supply of any kind – just on the swelling and shrinking of gel. Our study shows how the manipulation of shape, dimensions and patterning of gels can tune morphology to embody a kind of intelligence for locomotion.”
It offers hope of carrying payloads of drugs directly to a tumor, blood clot or infection – leaving healthy tissue alone. Robots are made almost exclusively of hard materials like metals and plastics – a fundamental obstacle in biomedical advancements. The water-based “gelbot” feels like a fruit gum. Previous research has demonstrated gels that swell or shrink in response to temperature can create smart structures.
Now the US team has shown they can be strategically manipulated to move robots forward and backward on flat surfaces. They can also be encouraged to crawl in certain directions with an undulating, wave-like motion. They are cheap and easy to mass produce.
Professor Gracias foresees a range of practical future applications, including moving on surfaces through the human body to deliver targeted medicines. Unlike tablets swallowed or liquids injected, it would withhold medicine until it reaches the target to release a high-concentration drug. They could also be marine robots, patrolling and monitoring the ocean’s surface to combat pollution.
Professor Gracias is planning to train the “gelbots” to crawl in response to variations in human biomarkers and biochemicals. He also wants to test other worm and marine organism-inspired shapes and forms and would like to incorporate cameras and sensors on their bodies. It is hoped robots will eventually change how doctors examine patients – serving as minimally invasive devices for biomedical diagnosis and treatments.
The robot was described in the journal Science Robotics.
REFERENCE: Metro; 14 DEC 2022; Mark Waghorn