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Continuing in the vein of soft robotics, we find that, once again, Mankind only advances where he can copy what God has already rendered.
That’s not to discredit the genius of the research team at City University of Hong Kong, headed up by Professor Wang Zuankai and Assistant Professor Dr. Shen Yajing.
They have created a tiny robotic creature that is something like a cross between a medicinal leech and a multi-legged millipede.
The millirobot’s purpose for being is to traverse the interior of a body, carrying drug treatment to a targeted location.
The challenge facing the research team was in creating a soft, adaptable robot capable of traversing a complex field of interior body structures and substances efficiently and safely, while being able to transport a sufficient quantity of medicine to make the whole trip worthwhile.
Long used in healthcare, a leech is a legless creature which gets about through a partnership of friction and wriggling. However, inside the body, such a method of propulsion would not be effective for a tiny, soft robot given the job of delivering medication to a specific location. Too much friction would stall the robot in bodily goos such as mucus or blood, bringing it to a halt and leaving the patient untreated.
To get around this dilemma, the scientists at CityU got all Attenborough on the problem’s arse. Turning to Nature, they observed, analyzed, and broke down into usable bits sundry structural features and proportions that enable life forms to ambulate through the world. The result of this wise observation and analysis was their discovery that certain ratios between the number of legs, their shape, length, and distance from one another, all promoted a millipede-like design approach. With a 1:1 leg distance ratio and pointy little feet that further reduce friction problems, the millirobot has proven itself to be adept at impressive ranges and types of movement, along with possessing remarkable strength comparable to that of an ant or a grandma lifting an SUV off a hapless pedestrian.
It’s not all about the gams, however. To quote from the ever-fascinating publication, ScienceDaily: “The robot is fabricated with a silicon material called polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS) embedded with magnetic particles which enables it to be remotely controlled by applying electromagnetic force.” The article goes on to clarify that this means that, “Controlled by a magnetic manipulator used in experiments, the robot can move in both a flap propulsion pattern and an inverted pendulum pattern, meaning that it can use its front feet to flap forward as well as swinging the body by standing on the left and right feet alternately to advance respectively.” I think that’s also the dance of the Dark Elves in World of Warcraft but, in any event, it sounds simultaneously awesome and kind of creepy.
Fortunately, the teensy robo-medic on a mission to heal is in the developmental hands of The Good Guys, who continue to search for a biodegradable material which will simply decompose after completing its task. I hate to think of this technology ending up in the wrong hands, where it could be used for all kinds of evil. Perhaps it is inevitable that, as robotic technology advances, we’ll each end up riddled with combatant nano-leeches, an interesting corollary to our natural viral and bacterial battles.
City University of Hong Kong. “Tiny soft robot with multilegs paves way for drugs delivery in human body.” ScienceDaily, 26 September 2018. <www.sciencedaily.com/
Haojian Lu, Mei Zhang, Yuanyuan Yang, Qiang Huang, Toshio Fukuda, Zuankai Wang, Yajing Shen. A bioinspired multilegged soft millirobot that functions in both dry and wet conditions. Nature Communications, 2018; 9 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41467-018-06491-9.