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Tiny Robot Could Help Doctors Perform Surgery

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A team of engineers at the University of Waterloo has developed a tiny robot that could eventually help doctors perform surgery. The robot was inspired by the gripping ability of geckos and the efficient locomotion of inchworms.

The research was published in Cell Reports Physical Science.

Maneuvering With UV and Magnetic Force

The robot uses ultraviolet (UV) light and magnetic force to maneuver on any surface, including up walls and across ceilings. It is the first soft robot of its kind that doesn't require a connection to an external power supply, which enables remote operation and versatilities. Because of these features, the robot could be used to assist surgeons and search inaccessible places.

Dr. Boxin Zhao is a professor of chemical engineering.

“This work is the first time a holistic soft robot has climbed on inverted surfaces, advancing state-of-the-art soft robotics innovation,” he said. “We are optimistic about its potential, with much more development, in several different fields.”

The team named the robot GeiwBot, after the creatures that inspired its design. Constructed with a smart material, it can be altered at the molecular level to imitate how geckos attach and detach their powerful grippers on their feet.

GeiwBot walking on ceilings

Creating the Tiny Robot

The robot is a mere four centimeters in length, three millimeters in width, and one millimeter thick, allowing it to climb vertical walls and traverse ceilings without the need for a power source. The robot was created using liquid crystal elastomers and synthetic adhesive pads. It incorporates a light-responsive polymer strip that mimics the arching and stretching movement of an inchworm, while gecko-inspired magnet pads at each end provide gripping capability.

Zhao is also the University of Waterloo Endowed Chair in Nanotechnology.

“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.”

By developing an untethered soft robot, the researchers are paving the way for potential surgical applications via remote operation inside the human body. They are also helping to create technology that can be used for sensing or searching in dangerous or hard-to-reach places during rescue operations.

The team will now look to develop a climbing soft robot that is solely driven by light and doesn’t require a magnetic field. This robot will also use near-infrared radiation instead of UV light, which can improve biocompatibility.

Alex McFarland is a tech writer who covers the latest developments in artificial intelligence. He has worked with AI startups and publications across the globe.