A swarm of tiny robots could soon brush and floss your teeth for you

Are you ready to put mini robots in your mouth?
Loukia Papadopoulos
brushing teeth
Dental hygiene concept.


Do you get lazy about brushing your teeth? Well, soon microbots could do the whole thing for you. A multidisciplinary team at the University of Pennsylvania has created a novel automated way to perform brushing and flossing through robotics, according to a press release published by the institution last month.

The development could be particularly useful for those who lack the manual dexterity to clean their teeth effectively themselves.

A cumbersome, challenging process

“Routine oral care is cumbersome and can pose challenges for many people, especially those who have hard time cleaning their teeth” said in the statement Hyun (Michel) Koo, a professor in the Department of Orthodontics and divisions of Community Oral Health and Pediatric Dentistry in Penn’s School of Dental Medicine and co-corresponding author on the study.

“You have to brush your teeth, then floss your teeth, then rinse your mouth; it’s a manual, multistep process. The big innovation here is that the robotics system can do all three in a single, hands-free, automated way.”

“Nanoparticles can be shaped and controlled with magnetic fields in surprising ways,” added Edward Steager, a senior research investigator in Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science and co-corresponding author.

“We form bristles that can extend, sweep, and even transfer back and forth across a space, much like flossing. The way it works is similar to how a robotic arm might reach out and clean a surface. The system can be programmed to do the nanoparticle assembly and motion control automatically.”

A swarm of tiny robots could soon brush and floss your teeth for you
How the microbots work.

Revolutionizing the good old fashioned toothbrush

The team is set to revolutionize the traditional but old-fashioned toothbrush. “The design of the toothbrush has remained relatively unchanged for millennia,” explained Koo.

While adding electric motors elevated the basic “bristle-on-a-stick format,” the fundamental concept has remained the same. “It’s a technology that has not been disrupted in decades.”

The new development consists of microrobots that are iron oxide nanoparticles that have both catalytic and magnetic activity. The team would use a magnetic field to direct their motion and configuration of these nanoparticles to form either bristlelike structures that sweep away dental plaque or elongated strings that can slip between teeth like a length of floss. In both cases, a catalytic reaction drives the nanoparticles to produce antimicrobials that kill harmful oral bacteria on site.

And the researchers say their new invention works for all kinds of teeth. “It doesn’t matter if you have straight teeth or misaligned teeth, it will adapt to different surfaces,” says Koo. “The system can adjust to all the nooks and crannies in the oral cavity.”

The question remains: how comfortable will people be with inserting microrobots in their mouths and is brushing teeth really so troublesome that it requires an upgrade? For these reasons the invention might not be so popular but it will prove useful for those who have physical handicaps that don’t allow them to brush their teeth. For those groups of people the innovation will certainly prove a game changer.

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