MIT is no stranger to building strange, pseudo-living, semi-automous objects. From pop-up tables, to smartphones that build themselves, to bacterial garments that ventilate their surfaces, to objects that appear if you just add water, MIT often makes things feel like organisms driven by their own volition. And the latest project out of MIT’s mechanical engineering department is no exception.
It’s a set of tiny magnetic puppets that can can crawl, jump, roll, grab, and even play catch. All you need to do is angle a magnet nearby, and you can control them much like pulling the strings on a marionette. That might not sound like much more than a novelty, but as they walk through the interior of your body, these creeping tools might one day save your life.
The research was led by professor Xuanhe Zhao, and its breakthrough was in its novel construction technique. While we’ve long known that magnets can manipulate objects, the fidelity of that manipulation was limited. (It’s easy to push a little piece of metal with a magnet, and about impossible to make it do a somersault.) By using a 3D printer filled with magnetic particle goo, Zhao’s team was able to fabricate intricate magnetic objects, with complicated facets that react to magnetic fields hitting them at various angles.
In the presence of magnetism, these facets each become like mini motors, moving and bending joints of the structure. Through assistive modeling software, the researchers can actually design custom shapes that can move with planned intent. Their benefit is that they’re mechanically simplistic, move faster than alternatives like hydraulics, and with less energy than dielectric elastomers (think plastics that change shape with electricity).
The team has successfully created a self-squeezing tube and the extremely creepy spidery thing you see in the video above. In theory, these objects could be placed in the human body, manipulated via wireless, harmless magnetism, and carry out intricate tasks like on-site drug delivery. But if for whatever reason that never happens, chalk this whole experiment up to researchers, once again, questioning the nature of the objects around us, and infusing them with smarts that go so much deeper than your typical, Wi-Fi-enabled light bulb.