The idea of sending tiny robots into the body to carry out delicate tasks that surgeons can only dream of doing with their fingers has proved very hard for researchers to transform into reality but engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are on the verge of accomplishing precisely this.
A team led by Daniela Rus and Shuhei Miyashita have created a robot that can be folded up like a bit of origami, stuck inside a capsule made of ice and then dropped down into the stomach where the capsule melts. Once freed from their icy bondage, the robots unfold and are guided by magnetic fields generated outside the stomach. Dr Rus and Dr Miyashita are currently using their technology to collect batteries. Yeah, you read that right, batteries.
It turns out that several thousand of those tiny batteries found in watches and other small electronics end up ingested by kids every year. Once inside, they literally weld themselves on to the lining of the stomach and start burning a hole. Getting them out is a surgical nightmare and that is where the robots come in. The researchers have been practicing maneuvering their robots around in artificial stomach such that they can grab batteries stuck in place. They then pilot the batteries down to the intestines where they can safely guide them out. As if that were not quite cool enough, they've also developed a robot that can carry drugs to the burn site and expedite healing.
They just presented their latest work on this at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation and reported that their current record for collecting a battery and delivering medication is around five minutes. Not bad when you consider that the alternative is a few hours on the surgical table.