Healthcare Technology Featured Article

November 12, 2014

University of Michigan's Tiny, Shape-Shifting Robots

The idea of tiny robots—not quite nanomachines, but more like micro-machines—has been around for quite some time, and the idea of putting such things to work in the human body has a great potential for use in the healthcare field. But a new development under way at the University of Michigan, meanwhile, is set to change the way we look at machines in the human body, as said machines are poised to travel through veins and operate almost the same way a computer network might.

The research underway would allow micro-robots to essentially work together, like tiny muscles controlled by electrical stimulation. This in turn would allow several tiny robots to essentially link together and do things that an individual tiny robot really couldn't do all that well. Plated in gold, the tiny robots would be able to interact with an electrical field and connect into a chain, which can then do several different things from there. Slated as possibilities include things like having robots change shape or come together to make new materials, or even work as a means to heal the human body itself.

A doctoral student, Aayush Shah, studying under University of Michigan professor of chemical engineering Michael Solomon, noted that the robots were essentially like “children in a playground.” While the robots could do some very noteworthy things operating alone, Shah noted, it was when under the influence of a “headmaster” that said robots could truly shine, coming together to do so much more than one robot could alone.

Comparisons to an ambulatory computer network here likely aren't out of line, and indeed, there's quite a bit that a series of tiny robots could do when set loose in a bloodstream. Imagine the idea of tiny robots clearing away blockages in the bloodstream of arterial plaque, or other matter. Said tiny robots might be able to stimulate muscles, making rehabilitation processes easier for those out of surgery. Beyond the field of healthcare, meanwhile, said robots might be able to make new circuits or move into novel shapes that allow new materials to be made. As the robots get smaller, we may be able to one day move the building blocks of matter, creating anything we may want or need from whatever is on hand, turning lawn clippings into fresh water or even gold. But to get to that point, where we can essentially 3D print anything we wish by taking matter apart at the atomic level and recasting it to suit our needs, we must start somewhere. That starting point looks a lot like this, with very small robots working together as one, just like that computer network with a series of nodes might.

There are a lot of possibilities with a project like this, and we could be on the cusp of actually putting some of these to work. The future is a dazzling place, and though any advance must be weighed carefully to determine its impact to society, there's still a lot of potential that any one advance may prove useful. Only time will tell just how useful these robots prove, meanwhile—it's likely going to be a few years before anyone's allowed to put these things anywhere near a human bloodstream—but this could be the start of a very big development in very tiny robots indeed.

Edited by Maurice Nagle
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