How a self-folding robot is making science easier to swallow. Literally.
Sometimes, the best way to solve a problem is to shrink yourself down and crawl inside of it until you find a fix.
Hey, it worked for Ms. Frizzle in "The Magic School Bus," for Ant-Man, for Rick Moranis' entire career, and for, well, let's just say there've been a lot of fantastical stories about epic adventures in miniature.
But this ingestible origami robot is totally real, totally weird, and totally, totally incredible.
The whole idea of an "origami robot" probably evokes images of anime Transformers. But that couldn't be further from the truth — and that's also kind of the point.
This cute little mechanical critter was created by a team of researchers at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL). As Steve Guitron, a grad student and one of the project's co-authors, explained in an interview, it began as an attempt to "manufacture robots in a different, inexpensive way than how they're currently created."
By designing a robot that defied the WALL-E or humanoid archetype and didn't rely as much on metals or 3D-machining, they hoped to open the door to new possibilities in applied robotics. You know, like this:
Using Mylar and the wire coil from an electromagnetic motor, they were able to construct a lightweight body that could fold itself up and then flatten out. The actual magnet that controls the motor is separated from the body to cut down on the bulky electronics, and that paper-like maneuverability allows the remote-controlled robot to walk, swim, and carry things.
Also? It's totally biodegradable, and you can 3D-print one and have it ready in less than an hour.
After successfully using the robot to accomplish some basics tasks, the researchers realized that their invention would be perfect for driving around inside someone's body.
There is obviously tremendous potential for this kind of application — targeted delivery of medicine, for example, or removing any of the 3,500 button batteries or other bizarre and dangerous objects that Americans sometimes like to swallow.
Naturally, the researchers 3D-printed a scientifically accurate human digestive tract out of silicon, even going as far as to simulate the gastric fluid in the stomach.
"If we wanted to test to see if it was a feasible thing that could work inside the stomach, we had to make an accurate environment," Guitron said. Because apparently asking strangers on the street, "Hey, do you mind swallowing this electromagnetic folding robot so we can see if our remote control still works?" doesn't work so well.
They also had to find a new bio-compatible material to replace the Mylar they used in earlier trials.
Apparently we're not supposed to swallow Mylar? Who knew?
They tried more than a dozen different structural materials in hopes of finding something that was heat-resistant, lightweight, and structurally rigid while also being soft enough that it could be rolled up or folded without damage.
In the end, they settled on a special kind of dried pig intestine, like the ones used in sausage casings. Yup.
With the origami robot safely in its new sausage home, it was placed inside a pill capsule made of ice and left to roam free around the fake-stomach environment...
In their earliest trial, the researchers were able to locate and take hold of a small button battery that they'd placed into their artificial gut. They were impressed by the efficiency of their adorable little creation. "If the stomach were to move like in a real person, we wondered if the robot could still navigate," Guitron said. "We found that to be relatively true, because the robot can move by thrusting in the water, and by walking on the stomach wall."
(As for what happens after the origami meat robot folds itself around the battery that you foolishly swallowed? You wait for a natural bowel movement and poop it out. Because we live in the future, where humans poop out robots made of sausage.)
While this wacky and wonderful creation isn't quite ready for real human stomachs yet, its potential is incredibly exciting.
According to Guitron, the next steps in the evolution of the origami robot are to see if it can accomplish more advanced tasks, such as patching wounds from the inside. They're also curious to see if they can equip it with tiny cameras or sensors and use it to navigate inside a body and send back images. And then, of course, there's the obvious exponential approach: Can they make it even smaller so it can move through other passages of the body?
The future applications are nearly endless. But for now, it's just nice to know that this little origami meat robot is on our side.