In 1966, the film Fantastic Voyage had miniaturised people in a miniaturised submarine sailing round the body of a full-sized scientist to fix his injured brain. Real life’s done it, but the film exaggerated the need for tiny people to be part of the journey. A team from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has shown that a robot can do it without them.
To be more precise, it’s a miniature printable origami robot. At the 2016 International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA) in Stockholm, Daniela Rus and Shuhei Miyashita from the MIT research team presented their prototypes.
The robot has a short life. Prototypes are made from materials that are soluble in liquids. After its tiny sheets of material are injected into a human body, it navigates to the required intervention site, folds up, and when it’s finished its job, dissolves. A magnetic field’s used to steer the robot to its required site in a body. In clinical use, it may rely on ultrasound and Magnetic Resonance Imaging (RMI).
There’s more than one type. Another prototype has electrically conductive outer layers. The conductive robot can be a tiny sensor. Contact with other objects, such as microorganisms or cells in the body, disrupt a current passing through the robot that can generate an electrical signal to human operators.
It seems these robots haven’t reached their miniaturisation limits yet. By the time this robots in routine use, even smaller descendants will be on the way.
Unlike the film’s submarine crew who intervened in clinical work, MIT’s robots will remove foreign bodies from human bodies. Examples are cells in batteries that children accidently swallow. The robots can replace the surgical procedures needed now. Beyond this, the potential for extensive clinical activities across many conditions seems extremely broad.
Leopold Kohr, the Austrian who inspired the small is beautiful movement, would’ve been delighted with this initiative. He saw himself as a philosophical anarchist. It seems that technology’s now ahead of his game.