It rolls. It flips. It jumps and it swims. And this tiny robot may one day deliver a payload of medicine inside your body. That’s the current focus for a fingertip-sized robot being developed at Stanford University. Under the helm of mechanical engineer Renee Zhao, the “spinning-enabled wireless amphibious origami millirobot” is designed to propel itself through the human body, traversing over the surfaces of organs and swimming through fluids. All on a mission to deliver its cargo of liquid medicine to the appropriate areas. Zhao explains, “It reaches the target, and then releases a high-concentration drug.”
So how does this little gizmo get where it needs to go? Its unique ability to maneuver around obstacles and through liquid owes much of its deftness to origami. Yes, that origami, the ancient art of paper folding. Zhao had previously worked on a robotic origami crawler with a foldability design that allows the robot to morph as it moves through divergent environments. Here, she took the same idea of origami-based robotics but focused on rigidity rather than foldability. In rigid form, the geometric features of the robot act as a propeller in water and give it purchase on surfaces to move it forward when not submerged.
But the body design of the millirobot only aids with maneuverability; magnetics provide the power. A magnet on one end of the robot allows an operator to direct the robot by manipulating the orientation and strength of a magnetic field, generating torque and the ability to send the robot into single leaps that span 10 times its length. In essence, science that’s not much different from using one magnet to repel or attract another magnet. Though Zhao’s robots can also self-direct, choosing between different locomotion modes as they encounter different obstacles inside the body.
Zhao doesn’t see her mini-robotics research ending with successful drug delivery in the body; she envisions tiny robots that will venture into territory that was previously just the stuff of science fiction, performing a variety of tasks in the human body, such as carrying instruments and cameras for doctors and collecting samples of bio materials for analysis. For now, we’ve just got to swallow pills the old-fashioned way and hope that the medicine gets where it needs to go. But one day, and perhaps one day soon, a robot will make a targeted delivery.