Researchers put AI into microscopic, autonomous vehicles to fight cancer

28 Aug 2017

Illustration of a nanobot repairing a red blood cell. Image: nobeastsofierce/Shutterstock

A team of researchers has created autonomous vehicles on the microscale, not for the benefit of driving, but for future drug delivery.

A self-driving vehicle capable of navigating its own way through a maze has been developed, with one slight difference: this one is microscopic.

Rather than just being a testbed for autonomous vehicles, the tiny creations could aid in the smart delivery of drugs to cancerous tumours, according to

In a paper published to ACS Nano, an international team of researchers revealed a spherical nanomotor just five micrometres in size (0.005mm), which successfully navigated a microscopic maze thanks to its own artificial intelligence (AI).

Until now, machines of this size or smaller were restricted to following a set path on a closed loop system. This new study marks the first demonstration of micromotors that can autonomously navigate a complex and changeable environment.

A process of teamwork

Explaining how it works, the team said that it is able to navigate thanks to a camera attached to a microscope, which captures photos of the maze map and sends them to a feature extraction processor.

It then discovers obstacles, creating a map of the maze so that the AI can decide which path it wants to take – in this case, the path that is free of collision.

The AI then translates the plan into action using a generator that can orientate a magnetic field to steer the tiny, autonomous vehicles.

If the motor wanders off its guided path due to interference, the AI will guide it back to its previous path.

“We have embedded artificial intelligence into a micro/nanorobot,” said Longqui Li, who was one of the leads on the project.

“Similar to their large vehicle counterparts, the autonomous navigation of microvehicles entails collision-free movement in dynamic environments.”

AI motors

Trajectories of a microvehicle as it travels through mazes. Image: Li et al/American Chemical Society

Could target cancer cells

The breakthrough could prove to be a huge development in the field of drug delivery as these microscopic vehicles and the AI could distinguish a person’s red blood cells from cancer cells.

Once it targets the cancerous cells, it could then avoid the healthy red blood cells, preventing the side effects seen in treatments such as chemotherapy.

In coming experiments, the team hopes to give the machines greater movement controls, including the ability to brake autonomously and switch on cruise control.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic