Ultra-Tiny Robot Army Could Crawl Inside Human Bodies Using Lasers

A research team designed an army of tiny robots capable of moving through our bodies using lasers.
Brad Bergan

Researchers have designed an army of ultra-tiny robots capable of working inside the human body and powered via directed lasers — potentially enhancing the future of medicine, according to a recent study published in the journal Nature.


Ultra-tiny robot army might crawl inside human bodies

While only sci-fi and fantasy can promise a shrink-ray, researchers are hard at work creating an army of small-scale robots capable of crawling around in human bodies, reports Inverse.

The idea of using tiny robots to deliver medical services or chemicals to treat or even cure diseases is decades old, but recent nanoroboticist research at Penn State explains how to mass-manufacture ultra-tiny robots using present-day silicon technology with a new type of electrochemical actuator. If it works, the ultra-tiny robots would swim through the watery fluids inside human bodies using nothing but the light of a laser.

This is still in the preliminary phase, but the ultra-tiny robots might see significant technological compatibility with increasingly-minuscule silicon technologies — which means we could outfit every robot with smart, autonomous, biomedical technology in the near future — costing only a penny per robot.

Novel actuators convert energy into real-world motion

In the study published Wednesday, the researchers cite a key innovation that makes their work exceptional:

"The key innovation enabling these microscopic robots is a new class of actuators that we call surface electrochemical actuators or SEAs," wrote the authors. "[Which] are completely compatible with silicon processing."

An actuator is a device capable of converting energy into real-world motion, reports Inverse. The authors claim their actuator design breaks with thermal, optical, or acoustic norms (in addition to several other types), and achieves low power and voltage actuation while also achieving sustainable force, robustness, and a small radius curvature.

Cornell University Tiny Robot Actuators
The robots have roughly the same dimensions as microorganisms — like the paramecium. Source: Arts & Sciences / Cornell University

Tiny robots use laser-suppled energy to move inside fluid

To test their novel actuators, the researchers designed a tiny-robot army. Each one consists of two main parts: a couple of front and back legs constructed from actuators, and a flat body composed of silicon electronics. An entire unit is roughly 0.001 inches (0.04 millimeters) wide and 0.002 inches (0.07 millimeters) long.

Classified as a marionette, each robot needs an external energy source to function — similar to how conventional marionettes only dance when there's someone above pulling the strings. The robots' "strings" are a laser pointed at two solar cell patches on their backs. When it's pointed at a solar cell connected to either the front or rear legs, an electric current is created, causing the actuators to absorb ions from the environment, and bend their leg — creating local motion.

Future tiny robots possibly upgraded with AI

More than a tiny robot army with tricked-out legs, the robots are exceptional because they employ the same fabrication techniques seen in silicon computer chips. This effectively means they may be produced en masse — researchers fit 1 million of these ultra-tiny robots onto a singular four-inch silicon wafer. This also means the robots are easily equipped with increasingly advanced technology as it progresses to smaller and smaller via Moore's Law, reports Inverse.

The ultra-tiny robots are so small they can be sucked into a pipette or extruded via a syringe — however, they have practically no autonomous intelligence. In response to this lack of intelligence, the researchers argue the bots' silicon capacity will allow for future upgrades. While silicon technology shrinks smaller and smaller, researchers think ultra-tiny robots of this type might be used to autonomously explore microenvironments, in addition to biological systems — like our bodies — at an unbelievably low price of $0.01 per robot.

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