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Someday this tiny spider bot could perform surgery inside your body

The experimental robots could also fix airplane engines and find disaster victims.

A team of Harvard University researchers recently achieved a major breakthrough in robotics, engineering a tiny spider robot using tech that could one day work inside your body to repair tissues or destroy tumors. Their work could not only change medicine–by eliminating invasive surgeries–but could also have an impact on everything from how industrial machines are maintained to how disaster victims are rescued.

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Until now, most advanced, small-scale robots followed a certain model: They tend to be built at the centimeter scale and have only one degree of freedom, which means they can only perform one movement. Not so with this new ‘bot, developed by scientists at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and Boston University. It’s built at the millimeter scale, and because it’s made of flexible materials–easily moved by pneumatic and hydraulic power–the critter has an unprecedented 18 degrees of freedom.

It’s smaller and more dexterous than any of its tiny robotic peers–a significant step toward robots that will be able to perform tasks inside the human body.

[Photo: Wyss Institute at Harvard University]

The engineers call the new technology MORPH, an acronym for Microfluidic Origami for Reconfigurable Pneumatic/Hydraulic. Using it to create a spider–or any other robotic critter–involves three different fabrication techniques. First, micro-lasers cut out 12 layers of material, which are glued together to create the body and arms of the spider. Second, soft lithography draws a complex network of microscopic channels inside those layers; these little “veins” move the spider as fluid or air are pumped through them. Finally, some parts of the ‘bot are hardened to make its basic shape permanent.

According to Sheila Russo, co-author of the study, their little monster can alter its structure, move, and even change colors. It seemed appropriate to test it by creating a replica of the colorful, millimeter-size Australian peacock spider.

While the promise of their spider is huge, Boston University assistant professor and co-author Tommaso Ranzani says its current form isn’t designed for medical applications. It’s more of a way to showcase its abilities. “However, we believe soft robotic technologies have a great potential in overcoming current challenges in minimally invasive surgery,” he said over email. One day, they could be ideal candidates to “manipulate and interact with the most delicate tissues in the body,” such as veins, arteries, and even nerves, after being deployed from a conventional surgical tool. They could also administer drugs or do biopsies.

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But Ranzani also believes that similar micro-bots could be helpful in environmental settings, and could maintain industrial facilities and even assist in space exploration. “[The spider] robot is a first demonstration of the manufacturing capabilities that this process enables,” he says. “And we believe it will pave the way to a new generation of soft micro-robots that can exploit their small scale, and deformable and resilient bodies, to explore highly unstructured and complex environments for applications ranging from safe and delicate manipulation of tissues inside the human body to search and rescue.”

Imagine a legion of robots cleaning a rocket engine and fixing microfactures, or looking for survivors in a building destroyed by an earthquake and providing first aid–or even just doing a clean sweep to clear clogged arteries inside a human body. I need a platoon of them, stat.

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About the author

Jesus Diaz founded the new Sploid for Gawker Media after seven years working at Gizmodo, where he helmed the lost-in-a-bar iPhone 4 story. He's a creative director, screenwriter, and producer at The Magic Sauce and a contributing writer at Fast Company.

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