Lacing together the art of Japanese paper folding and the drive to innovate medical technology, researchers at MIT, the University of Sheffield and the Tokyo Institute of Technology have developed the beginnings of a medical robotic device; the Origami Robot. The research, led by Professor Daniela Rus, shows the works of a pea-sized robot, encapsulated in ice, which melts and unfolds upon ingestion. This is thought to be a useful device to aid surgery and improve patients’ recovery time.
Photo: Melanie Gonick/MIT
The robot is magnetic, so once it is inside the body, it can be controlled by an external magnet to guide it in carrying out its role whether it’s to remove foreign objects, patch wounds or deliver medicine. There are hopes that with further research it can become completely tetherless and function as an autonomous robot. After the robot has done its job, it will be egested. It is important to note that the use of this robot in a medical setting would not involve incisions, due to its small size and entry through the mouth. “To think about these procedures without cutting the body is extraordinarily exciting,” said Rus. With an increasing demand for ‘scarless’ surgeries and non-surgical procedures, this ‘not-so-invasive’ technique would prove to be popular in what would previously be surgical cases.
The challenge with creating biological devices is that they need to be biocompatible. One of the struggles faced in creating this device was the need to find the appropriate materials for the robot. The researchers have experimented with about a dozen materials such as biological tissue from cows and chickens, before settling on a type of pig intestine usually used to encase
sausages that they came across in a food market. Finding biocompatible materials is important, especially if the device is going to have biological applications, such as making the journey through the human body. This is so the robotic device isn't rejected by the human body when used; otherwise, this would cause more damage than what was already there!
The next stage in the research is to make the robot completely autonomous and remove the need to control it by an external magnetic field, and to carry out in vivo trials in animals and humans. Getting approval and then progressing through these stages will take many years, so it may be some time before we see these robots rolled out in medical practice!
The original use for the robot was to recover button batteries from a patient’s stomach, as these are hazardous situations in which the battery can damage the lining of the alimentary canal and assimilate into the surrounding walls, but it is evident that with further development, this project has potential to branch out further into medicine, as well as other industries.
The idea of autonomic robots and non-invasive procedures go hand in hand with the elegantly designed, origami robot, and will revolutionize the nascent industry of MedTech.