First-of-its-kind gecko robot could one day help doctors in surgeries

"Nature is a great source of inspiration, and nanotechnology is an exciting way to apply its lessons.”
Sade Agard
Tiny new soft robot - dubbed the GeiwBot
Tiny new soft robot - dubbed the GeiwBot

University of Waterloo 

A small robot that could one day help doctors perform surgery was inspired by the incredible grasping ability of geckos and the efficient motion of inchworms.

The new robot, created by engineers at the University of Waterloo, moves on any surface- even up walls and over ceilings- by tapping into the ultraviolet (UV) light and magnetic force technologies.  Better yet, it's the first of its kind to operate without an external power source, allowing for remote control and versatility in hard-to-reach areas. 

What is GeiwBot, the soft robot in healthcare?

"This work is the first time a holistic soft robot has climbed on inverted surfaces, advancing state-of-the-art soft robotics innovation," said Dr. Boxin Zhao in a press release, a professor of chemical engineering. 

"We are optimistic about its potential, with much more development, in several different fields," he added. 

Dubbed GeiwBot, the robot was created from a smart material that can be molecularly changed to resemble how geckos stick and unstick their powerful grippers on their feet. 

This allows the four-centimeter-long, three-millimeter-wide, and one-millimeter-thick robot to climb a vertical wall and cross a ceiling without being connected to a power source.

Zhao and his team built GeiwBot utilizing synthetic adhesive pads and liquid crystal elastomers. Essentially, a light-responsive polymer strip simulates an inchworm-like arching and stretching action. On the other hand, gecko-inspired magnet pads perform the grabbing at either end.

"Even though there are still limitations to overcome, this development represents a significant milestone for utilizing biomimicry and smart materials for soft robots," said Zhao.

"Nature is a great source of inspiration, and nanotechnology is an exciting way to apply its lessons."

Significantly, an untethered soft robot opens the door for possible surgical applications via remote control inside the human body. During rescue operations, it could also help sense or search hazardous or difficult-to-reach regions. 

The next stage for researchers is to create a climbing soft robot that is entirely powered by light and does not require a magnetic field. Additionally, the future robot would employ near-infrared rather than UV light to increase biocompatibility.

The complete study was published in the journal Cell Reports Physical Science on February 27 and can be found here.

Study abstract:

The climbing capabilities of living creatures such as geckos, tree frogs, and inchworms provide a promising platform for exploiting biomimetic soft climbing robots, but achieving this promise remains a grand challenge in materials science and engineering. Inspired by the adhesive characteristics of gecko toes and the gait of inchworms, here, we exploit the synergetic interactions of functional material components and design a hybrid biomimetic structure as a holistic soft robot, which can climb on walls and ceilings of different textures including glass, polyimide, and aluminum. In our design, the climbing behavior of the soft robot is based on dynamic attachment/detachment of a gecko adhesive pad and the periodic body deformation of the inchworm. The demonstrated synergetic combination of two biological principles and the assembly of individual components into one holistic soft robot provides scientific insights for utilizing biomimicry for soft robotics.