When we think of robots small enough to function inside the human body, the first thing that usually comes to mind is science fiction and a great deal of unease. As science continues to make pioneering jumps in the field of medical science, it’s becoming clear that such a possibility is real and it may not be as scary as we think.
A new study published in Journal of the Mechanics and Physics of Solids and authored by Antonio De Simone, from SISSA (the International School for Advanced Studies of Trieste) and Marino Arroyo from the Polytechnic University of Catalonia, proved that you can create “soft” robots that can serve a multitude of functions within the human body.
“If I think of the robots of tomorrow, what comes to mind are the tentacles of an octopus or the trunk of an elephant rather than the mechanical arm of a crane or the inner workings of a watch. And if I think of micro-robots then I think of unicellular organisms moving in water. The robots of the future will be increasingly like biological organisms” explains De Simone. “Our work not only helps to understand the movement mechanism of these unicellular organisms, but it provides a knowledge base to plan the locomotion system of future micro-robots.”
These “soft” robots could be used to help administer drugs directly at the site where they are needed, instead of relying on absorption through the blood stream and digestive system. In addition, they could also be used to help treat wounds and even re-open clogged blood vessels. The possibilities for this field are endless and show just how far technology can take us with innovators like these.
The research included studying euglenids, unicellular aquatic animals, which served as the inspiration for “soft” robots. By creating these robots out of soft materials that are friendly to the human body, they could be administered internally without fear of harming soft tissues. They would also have to move a little differently,
De Simone explains, “Imagine trying to miniaturize a device made up of levers and cogwheels: you can’t go below a certain minimal size. Instead, by mimicking biological systems we can go all the way down to cell size, and this is exactly the direction research is taking. We, in particular, are working on movement and studying how certain unicellular organisms with highly efficient locomotion move.”
This is great news not only for the medical community, but also for those involved in medical engineering. As De Simone and Arroyo have shown, there are numerous ways that these robots could benefit humans. With continued innovation, there is no telling just how far medical science could take us.
For those in this field, or those considering a career in medical engineering, research like this offers the opportunity to make not only a lasting contribution to society, but also the ability to literally change the way we think about medicine and healing.
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