Smart MicRobots

Imagination can take us anywhere and inspiration comes from everywhere! Rightly quoted and decorously derived by scientists of EPFL and ETH.

Bacteria displays remarkable plasticity in response to locally changing physical and chemical conditions. This has influenced researchers to develop smart micro-robots that can adapt to their surroundings.

A group of scientists led by Selman Sakar at EPFL and Bradley Nelson at ETH Zurich drew inspiration from bacteria to design smart, highly flexible biocompatible micro-robots. These devices are able to swim through fluids and modify their shape when needed, they can pass through narrow blood vessels and intricate systems without compromising on speed or maneuverability.

Not to be surprised if, in the near future, patients are able to ingest tiny robots that deliver drugs directly to diseased tissue. The research being carried out by scientists at EPFL and ETH can make this possible very soon.

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They use magnetic hydrogel nano composites as a programmable matter to engineer microswimmers inspired by the form, locomotion, and plasticity of model microorganisms. The careful analysis of swimming performance at different viscosities provided a guideline to build a single machine that manifests multiple stable configurations, each optimized for a different locomotion gait.

Fabricating miniaturized robots presents a host of challenges, which the scientists addressed using an origami-based folding method. Their novel locomotion strategy employs embodied intelligence, which is an alternative to the classical computation paradigm that is performed by embedded electronic systems.

"Our robots have a special composition and structure that allows them to adapt to the characteristics of the fluid they are moving through. For instance, if they encounter a change in viscosity or osmotic concentration, they modify their shape to maintain their speed and maneuverability without losing control of the direction of motion," says Sakar.

The deformations can be programmed in advance so as to maximize performance without the use of cumbersome sensors or actuators. The robots can be either controlled using an electromagnetic field or left to navigate on their own through cavities by utilizing fluid flow. Either way, they will automatically morph into the most efficient shape.

"Nature has evolved a multitude of microorganisms that change shape as their environmental conditions change. This basic principle inspired our micro-robot design. The key challenge for us was to develop the physics that describe the types of changes we were interested in, and then to integrate this with new fabrication technologies," says Nelson.

Their approach for solving the navigation problem reduces the number of elements to be controlled and therefore can have advantages in terms of speed, versatility, and cost. The manufacturing process is high throughput and scalable, which together open up doors for the development of a variety of adaptive soft microrobots.

Let's hope for faster development and deployment of this tech and let us also keep deriving inspiration from our unfathomable and baffling nature around us, because we never know what spectacular product we might be able to develop, right?! #CRForAChange

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