Researchers at the Paul Scherrer Institute PSI and ETH Zurich developed a micromachine that could eventually be used to enter a human's bloodstream and perform small operations.
The researchers inserted nanomagnets into the microbots that they could then magnetically program using magnetic fields.
The researchers liken their robot, which measures only a few micrometers across, to an origami paper bird.
Unlike a Japanese paper art piece, the robot moves as if by magic, they say. Impressively, the microrobot can bend its neck, flap its wings, and retract its head, all thanks to magnetic waves.
Published in the scientific journal Nature, the research, carried out at the Paul Scherrer Institute PSI and ETH Zurich, shows how magnets placed in flexible components can be used to move small robotic parts.
The researchers manufactured the robots using a variety of cobalt magnets on thin sheets of silicon nitride that made up the parts of the microbot bird.
"The movements performed by the microrobot take place within milliseconds," Laura Heyderman, head of the Laboratory for Multiscale Materials Experiments at PSI said in a press release.
The new research signals a future of micro- and nanorobots that can be consistently reprogrammed to perform different tasks.
"It is conceivable that, in the future, an autonomous micromachine will navigate through human blood vessels and perform biomedical tasks such as killing cancer cells," says Bradley Nelson, head of Department of Mechanical and Process Engineering at ETH Zurich.
"Other application areas are also conceivable, for example flexible microelectronics or microlenses that change their optical properties," says Tianyun Huang, a researcher at the Institute of Robotics and Intelligent Systems at ETH Zurich.
More research is needed, but we could see a future where a small army of robots are injected into our bloodstreams to take out diseases, all inspired by origami.