Tiny robots made of metal powder glued to plastic tape and controlled by magnetic fields may one day crawl into internal organs and repair damage.
The robots, made of adhesive tape and dust, can transform into various shapes under the influence of a magnetic field. One day they may be able to climb into computers to repair faulty circuits, or even into human stomachs to apply therapeutic patches to stomach ulcers. Soft robots, which have no batteries, motors or electronics and are operated and controlled remotely using light or magnets, are a popular area of research. However, several obstacles must be overcome before practical use, including the need for a cheap manufacturing process. Zhang Li of the Chinese University of Hong Kong and colleagues discovered that it is easy and low-cost to create a magnetically controlled robot using adhesive tape printed with non-sticky wax with a specific pattern. When the powder containing the magnetic neodymium-iron-boron microparticles is applied to the tape, it sticks to the exposed parts, but not to the wax layer – a bit like a stencil. The wax is then dissolved in a solution of ethyl acetate to produce a precisely shaped magnetic robot.According to Zhang, the process can be easily automated, and the tiny robots could eventually be printed in long rolls, just like newspapers coming off a printing press. In his experiments, his team created different duct tape robots, about one centimeter in diameter, that change their geometry depending on the presence and direction of a magnetic field. Some of the robots were able to move through water or along flat surfaces, and one device was able to crawl across the surface of pig stomach tissue in the lab, apply a small therapeutic patch to the stomach ulcer, then peel it off and leave the scene. According to Zhang, these devices could be used in the future to deliver drugs or perform simple medical procedures in the stomach or intestines. “When it is introduced into the body, it can be deployed in a small size, as if folded, and when it reaches a larger cavity, it can be opened,” he says. “It’s very similar to a satellite, where after it’s launched into space, the solar panels open up. So when you have to swallow this device, it has to be very small.” However, there are hurdles to overcome before clinical trials. “The first thing is safety, because we currently use a very strong magnet called a neodymium-iron-boron magnet. It’s actually not that safe,” Zhang says. “Quite toxic to cells.”Hardware, software, tests, interesting and colorful news from the IT world by clicking here!