Could this insect-inspired robot offer a new way for drug delivery?

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A miniature robot inspired by insects and jellyfish has been developed by scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems that can traverse complex environments to potentially deliver drugs to targeted regions or find use in minimally-invasive surgical procedures.

The magnetically controlled robot is made of a soft elastic polymer and is a flat rectangular device only four millimetres in size. Taking inspiration from the soft-bodied beetle larvae, caterpillars and jellyfish, the robot’s body can be adjusted via magnetic fields so that it can overcome obstacles or uneven surfaces and can transition from movement on solid surfaces to liquid easily.

“We looked at the physical mechanism of locomotion of soft-bodied caterpillars and jellyfish and took inspiration from them. The result is that our millirobot is a mix of small-scale soft-bodied animals, such as a beetle larva, a caterpillar, a spermatozoid, and a jellyfish,” explained Prof. Metin Sitti, director of the Physical Intelligence Department at the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems in Stuttgart.

In addition to the ability to crawl, walk or roll on surfaces, jump over obstacles and swim in water, the body deformations that can be performed by the robot allows it to pick up objects and transport them to other locations for release.

“In the future, our robot can carry drugs and deliver them to a desired location where they are most needed, much like a doorstep delivery,” Sitti continues. “We would use it for minimally invasive medical applications inside the human body: it would be delivered through swallowing or a cavity on the skin and make its way through the digestive or urinary tract, abdominal cavity, or heart surface.”

So far, Sitti and his team have tested the device within a synthetic surgical stomach and chicken tissue, where they have managed to navigate and steer it successfully using ultrasound image guidance. “Currently it is not possible to access many small regions inside the human body without surgery, but our target is to reach such regions non-invasively and conduct diagnostic and therapeutic operations with our soft robots,” added Sitti.

The study looking at this untethered robot that has locomotive mobility has been published online in the journal Nature.

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