Engineer builds a tiny robot that crawls inside your body
From delivering medicine to taking biopsies, a futuristic invention has arrived.
David Zarrouk's laboratory is like something out of the Mr. Potato Head universe. File cabinets and drawers are stuffed with various bits and pieces of robots. A leg over here, an arm over there. Spools of different-color wires rest on shelves. If you didn't know any better, you'd think the professor was building toys.
Indeed, he shows a clip from the kid-friendly film "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" to demonstrate the inspiration for one of his creations.
But no, this isn't Santa's workshop. Well, at least not yet. For now, he's completely satisfied inventing life-saving machines. He's created robots that can climb stairs and crawl under doors. With built-in cameras on them, the robots can be used in search and rescue missions to find, for example, trapped survivors after an earthquake.
But on a recent spring morning on the campus of Ben-Gurion University in Israel, Dr. Zarrouk has another kind of robot on his mind: a robot so small it can crawl into your body. Assuming we're not writing a script to a sci-fi horror movie, why, you ask, would such a robot be necessary?
Think about this: Let's say you're sick and the doctor wants you to take a pill. Right now, you swallow that pill, it dissolves into your bloodstream and eventually makes its way to the area where it's needed. But what if a tiny robot could go inside your body and deliver the drug exactly to the spot it's needed, with pinpoint precision?
Here's another application: Several years ago an Israeli medical technology company called Given Imaging invented the PillCam. A patient swallows it, and the pill spends half a day swimming through the colon taking a video. Doctors often use this less invasive procedure instead of colonoscopies.
The problem? Afterwards, the doctors have 6-8 hours of video to watch, hoping just to get to the one or two parts that interests them. But what if that tiny robot was equipped with a camera, and the patient swallowed that instead? Using a joystick, the doctor could quickly guide the robot to the exact part of the body he's interested in viewing. The robot could even stop what it's doing and take a biopsy.
There are all sorts of applications for this invention – tumor treatment, drug delivery, cardiovascular maintenance and endoscopies, just to name a few.
Zarrouk and his team are not the only ones working on such a robot, but the Ben-Gurion University version is unique in that it is inspired by nature. They've turned to the inchworm as their muse. They've studied the way it crawls and have mimicked their robot after those movements. Their robot only contains a single tiny motor, while other groups are forced to use a bulky three. "When you have one motor, things are smaller and more energy efficient," he told us. "This is like 300 times more efficient than the second best."
You can see a video of their prototype here:
They're already testing it on animals, with the goal of eventually being able to use it on humans.
As for what's next? Zarrouk's Bio-Inspired Medical Robotics Lab is developing robots that can survive on Mars, robots that fix satellites in outer space and robots that can pick fruit in hard-to-reach places. And, yes, eventually Zarrouk thinks he might actually also get into the toy business.
"If it makes children happy," he said with a smile.
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