Scientists have been hard at work in recent years on exploring the potential role that nanotechnology and other technologies can play in the area of medicine.
From deepening our understanding of the functioning of the brain, to delivering molecular cargo, we are entering an era in which tiny devices will be used more and more for a broader array of purposes.
Given this growing body of research, it is not surprising that a team of researchers from the City University of Hong Kong (CityU) have developed a tiny soft robotic device that could potentially deliver much-needed medicine to patients.
The smart engineering behind the soft robot's design
Made with a millirobot design, it measures 0.15 mm in terms of body thickness, each of the tiny legs extends to about 0.65 mm with only a slight space of 0.6 mm between each of them.
The result is a robot that achieves both a highly-coordinated and efficient system of motion and one which makes less contact with the various surfaces located inside the human body. In other words, the milli-bot will glide through the body light as a feather.
Another part of the success of the project comes from the team's wise decision to create a millirobot with the optimum size ratio. "Most animals have a leg-length to leg-gap ratio of 2:1 to 1:1. So we decided to create our robot using 1:1 proportion," shares Dr. Shen Yajing, Assistant Professor at CityU's Department of Biomedical Engineering (BME), who led the research.
Polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS), a silicone polymer went into the design as well, enhanced by magnetic particles inside. "Both the materials and the mutli-leg design greatly improve the robot's hydrophobic property. Besides, the rubbery piece is soft and can be cut easily to form robots of various shapes and sizes for different applications," reports Professor Wang Zuankai, of the CityU Department of Mechanical Engineering, and who was also one of the most actively involved in terms of making the research question become a reality.
The result is a soft robot that "yields superior adaptivity to various harsh environments with ultrafast locomotion speed".
The navigational challenges of milli-robots
Inside the human body lies a complex network of anatomical systems, and considering the size and dimensions of the milli-robot, the space can be a virtual landmine of obstacles.
Professor Wang explains the unique challenges that could negatively affect the successful rate of soft robots of this kind: "The rugged surface and changing texture of different tissues inside the human body make transportation challenging. Our multi-legged robot shows an impressive performance in various terrains and hence open wide applications for drug delivery inside the body."
Details about the study appear in a paper, titled "A bioinspired multilegged soft millirobot that functions in both dry and wet conditions", which was published September 26th in the Nature Communications journal.