Ingestible origami robot can crawl into your stomach and heal wounds

13 May 2016

The ingestible origami robot. Image via Melanie Gonick/MIT

Imagine swallowing a tablet knowing it contains a robot that, when it enters your stomach, unfolds like origami and crawls its way around to heal where the ailment is. This could be the future of healthcare.

This latest ingestible origami robot appears to be a natural progression in foldable robotics from last year’s revealing of a miniature origami robot that could walk untethered and degrade in water.

Now, from the same university that brought us this first incredible feat, MIT, joined by the University of Sheffield and the Tokyo Institute of Technology, has revealed its latest miniaturised robot that could have “potential important applications to healthcare”.

Using magnetic fields for guidance

Prior to insertion into the stomach, the origami robot is folded up into a digestible capsule, which once swallowed gradually begins to unfold itself as it travels down and, with the help of external magnetic fields, is guided across the stomach wall to treat whatever area is causing trouble.

Despite being the successor to last year’s robot, Daniela Rus, who has been involved with both projects, said that there are substantial design differences between the two origami robots.

However, like its predecessor, the robot propels itself using ‘stick-slip’ motion along the stomach wall by using friction to stick to the surface, but can easily move again once it changes its weight distribution.

Yet this particular stomach-exploring robot is propelled 20pc of the time by water in the body, which led the team to making the robot more fin-like for easier movement.

Its guidance is powered by a magnet located within its centre that is then controlled from the outside by rotations, so, a quick rotation will make it spin in place, but a slower rotation will cause it to pivot around one of its fixed feet.

Searching the Asian markets for inspiration

As for the casing, well, the research team said it spent a long time wandering the Asian markets to find suitable materials to allow for digestion, settling on a material comparable to sausage casing made from dried pig intestine.

During testing, the team looked at the highly-dangerous incident of swallowing a button battery, something that happens 3,500 times each year in the US.

If a battery comes into prolonged contact with the tissue of the oesophagus or stomach, it can cause an electric current that produces hydroxide, which burns the tissue.

Speaking of the team’s creation, Bradley Nelson, a professor of robotics at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich, who was not connected with the research, said: “This concept is both highly creative and highly practical, and it addresses a clinical need in an elegant way.

“It is one of the most convincing applications of origami robots that I have seen.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic