Swallowing This Origami Robot Could Change The Way Surgery Is Performed

Skip the incision.

It's easy to tell where someone had surgery, as the scar from the incision is unmistakable proof. That might not be the case in the future, as a new robot developed by an international team of scientists could get to work by simply swallowing it before the procedure. 

Making an incision is hard on the body. Having to cut through tissues to get to the area needing surgery is invasive and requires a lot of downtime afterward. This origami robot could make procedures safer with less associated pain and recovery time.

"It's really exciting to see our small origami robots doing something with potential important applications to health care," stated Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Daniela Rus. "For applications inside the body, we need a small, controllable, untethered robot system. It's really difficult to control and place a robot inside the body if the robot is attached to a tether."

The current robot, to be presented at the 2016 IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Stockholm, is the latest incarnation in a long series of self-assembling robots. The previous models had similar ways of moving inside the body by essentially shrink-wrapping it in a biodegradable layer to make it easier to enter the stomach.

What sets the current robot apart is the accordion-style folds, which help to give it structure so it is strong enough to perform its tasks. The robot was tested inside a pig's stomach, with a rubber tube to simulate an esophagus, and it even worked in an acidic solution meant to simulate stomach acid.

Once the robot is in the patient's stomach, the outer layer dissolves and the accordion-shaped robot unfolds and can be put to work. Researchers can control the robot through the use of a magnetic field outside the body. Not only is it able to perform surgery on the stomach, it is able to retrieve small batteries, which can be swallowed by children with some devastating consequences.

Check out the robot in action here:

Cover image: Melanie Gonick / MIT