It is small enough to swallow whole, just like a pill. But it is, in fact, the world’s first digestible robot.
The technology has already been called the ‘future of medicine’ since it liberates both the surgeon and patient from the burden of invasive procedures.
Developed by researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) the sensor is an ‘origami robot’ that is ingested frozen. Once thawed in the stomach the automaton can perform set tasks, controlled by physicians with an external magnet.
“The robot can remove foreign objects, it can patch wounds, or it can deliver medicine at designated locations,” explains MIT’s Daniela Rus in a video produced to demonstrate the technology.
MIT has used some alarming statistics to show how the robot can be applied to a real world problem.
According to the video, more than 3,500 people in the USA swallow battery button’s every year.
“The tiny batteries are digested normally,” MIT researchers say, “but if they come into prolonged contact with the tissue of the oesophagus of the stomach the batteries can burn the tissue and become embedded.”
With the digestible origami robot, the danger can be removed from a patient’s stomach without having to resort to surgery.
The digestible robot has evolved from CSAIL’s earlier research. In 2015, the lab there announced they had produced a dissolvable untethered miniature origami robot that can float, swim, and ‘self-fold’.
That device weighed just 0.31g and measured only 1.7cm with a ‘travel speed’ of approximately 3-4cm per second – all of which made it ideal for work inside the human body say its designers.
Still, according to the MIT News video, the design of the indigestible robot is significantly different from the earlier origami robot.
“The challenge with designing an indigestible robot is finding biocompatible materials,” Rus said in the video.
These need to be easy to control and amenable to the types of operations that the robot must perform, she said.
In the end, the solution to this problem was found in sausage ‘casings’:
researchers at the CSAIL elected to use a kind of dried pig intestine.
Moving forward, researchers need to test the robot in real-time with a human subject; for the moment, it has only been used on a model of a pig’s intestine.
Rus said that the CSAIL researchers aim next to add sensors to the robots.
This would enable the robot to control itself – eliminating the need for a physician or technician to control its actions through manipulation of a magnetic field.
The CSAIL project is the latest in a growing ecosystem of ingestible smart technology that aims to ease patient pain points while delivering optimum treatment.
At the Science and Technology of Robotics in Medicine (STORM LAB) at The Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, researchers are working on a ‘capsule’ that delivers a colonoscopy from ‘the front’ rather than ‘from the back,’ using magnetic guidance technology.