This Breakdancing Robot Could Be Used To Deliver Medicine In The Body

Samuel I. Stupp Laboratory/Northwestern University

Researchers at Northwestern University developed a hip new first-of-its-kind robot that looks a bit like a four-armed octopus and can breakdance. Made of soft, life-like material, it can keep up with human walking speed and be used to deliver particles across uneven terrain. The unusual bit of kit is just a centimeter big and is activated by light, meaning it’s free from complex electronics, instead moving as guided by an external magnetic field. The research was published in the journal Science Robotics.

A video of the novel technology shows our diddy octopus moving through a tank of water. With water constituting 90 percent of its weight, the delicate robot is safe for interacting with soft objects such as human tissues unlike its more hardware-heavy counterparts. The researchers were able to facilitate its movement by pairing responses to light and magnetic fields, and it can now deliver a product to a specific destination by walking or rolling there as guided by the researchers’ directions. To unload the product, it spins in a way comparable to break dancing and the payload gently slips off its back.

The robot consists of a water-filled structure that is embedded with a skeleton of aligned nickel filaments that are ferromagnetic, meaning they react to electromagnetic fields. The molecules within the hydrogel soft body were chemically synthesized to respond to light, with its responses including maintaining or expelling water content, or stiffening so that it reacts more strongly to magnetic fields.

The ultimate goal of the minute machinery is to be able to customize its function so that they can speed up chemical reactions and identify unwanted particles to be removed and destroyed. With a bit of further refinement, it’s also hoped they can be engineered to deliver bio-therapeutics to specific human tissues acting as a safe way to facilitate the precise application of medicines.

"By combining walking and steering motions together, we can program specific sequences of magnetic fields, which remotely operate the robot and direct it to follow paths on flat or inclined surfaces," added Monica Olvera de la Cruz, who led the theoretical work. "This programmable feature allows us to direct the robot through narrow passages with complex routes."

The new design was built on a previous prototype developed by members of the team which, inspired by sea creatures, could bend over several minutes and crawl across a surface. This earlier design was, however, very slow, taking just one step every 12 hours compared to the new design that walks a step per second, which is around about the pace of human beings.

The tiny robot can carry payloads on its back. Samuel I. Stupp Laboratory/Northwestern University

"The design of the new materials that imitate living creatures allows not only a faster response but also the performance of more sophisticated functions," said Samuel I. Stupp, who led the experimental research in a statement. "We can change the shape and add legs to the synthetic creatures and give these lifeless materials new walking gaits and smarter behaviors. This makes them highly versatile and amenable to different tasks.

"Eventually, we'd like to make armies of microrobots that could perform a complicated task in a coordinated way. We can tweak them molecularly to interact with one another to imitate swarming of birds and bacteria in nature or schools of fish in the ocean. The molecular versatility of the platform could lead to applications that have not been conceived at this point."

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