Swallowing a robot is normally cause for a trip to an emergency room to get that Transformer out of your 3-year-old. But instead of fishing this tiny robot out of your stomach, doctors are having you swallow it – on purpose.
Scientists have created a tiny robot that can be swallowed and sent to retrieve objects that were errantly ingested. The robot folds up like origami and fits inside a capsule that then dissolves after it’s swallowed. The robot then unfolds and scientists use external controls to send it to the area in the body that needs medical attention.
“It’s really exciting to see our small origami robots doing something with potential important applications to health care,” said Daniela Rus, a professor in MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “For applications inside the body, we need a small, controllable, untethered robot system. It’s really difficult to control and place a robot inside the body if the robot is attached to a tether.”
Rus and Shuhei Miyashita of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology tested their device by using it to retrieve a battery that had been swallowed – something more than 3,500 people do each year. A charged battery can be removed by regular surgery, but the procedure to prevent the swallowed item from burning a hole in your stomach can be a painful one. The foldable robot allows doctors to remove items such as a battery without having to make a single incision.
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The rectangular robot has accordion folds and pinched corners that help it gain traction as it moves through the body. To test the device, the scientists constructed a silicone esophagus and stomach with a transparent side so they can see inside to steer the robot towards its target. A solution of water and lemon juice act as stomach fluid.
The robot, partially made of pig intestine, has a magnet it uses to find and attach itself to the ingested battery. The scientists tested multiple different materials to mimic the tissues of the body before they selected the material used in sausage casings.
“We spent a lot of time at Asian markets and the Chinatown market looking for materials,” said Shuguang Li, another scientist who worked on the project.
The robot guides the foreign object to the intestine, where it can be expelled through the digestive system. Scientists then send in another robot with medicine to heal the wound.
Rus and Miyashita introduced their research at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Stockholm this week, and said the next step will be to try the procedure on live pigs.