In the past five years, we’ve written about a wide range of robotic technology healthcare applications. From expressive robots that help autistic kids learn, smart home robots that assist seniors with daily living tasks, and robotic nurse assistants, to AI robots that reduce hospital emergency department wait times and “caterpillar” soft robots that deliver drug payloads, robots in medicine and healthcare fill an astounding range of roles. The examples above are all from the past five months. Perhaps we’re jaded, but we took them all in stride.

Still, we never expected Gummy Robots.

Scientists at Ecole Polytechnique Federale De Lausanne (EPFL) have discovered a way to use single cell-sized, hydrogel-based “muscles” to stimulate and manipulate biological tissue. The EPFL team takes advantage of a reactive phenomenon of human tissue. Microtissue and cells react to mechanical stimuli to protect the organism. EPFL researchers activate soft robotic devices with laser beams to push or prod targeted tissue in highly controlled applications. The scientists have tested gummy robots with success in living organisms and with samples of blood, cells, and other tissues obtained from live donors.

EPFL’s initial efforts with biocompatible robots explore possibilities for disease diagnosis, prevention, and targeted therapy. Other potential practical applications could include tissue stimulation and actuating mechanisms for on-demand delivery of medication or other biological agents. Usually, when we think of robots we think of fairly large, hard surface devices, often with humanoid features. EPFL’s work with soft microactuators extends the boundaries of robotic applications in unexpected directions.