The development of flexible robotics has enabled researchers to develop non-invasive, precise and delicate diagnostic tools.
Researchers at the University of Leeds in England have developed a tiny robot capable of surveying the bronchi and lungs in search of cancerous tumors.
When we speak of “robotics”, the collective imagination most often visualizes large metal machines, heavy, cumbersome and clumsy. But since the very end of the 2000s, thanks to the dazzling progress of researchers in robotics and materials science, we have witnessed the emergence of another archetype: soft robotics.
Conceptually, the idea is dead simple; it is a question of producing robots, drones, or other forms of automatons from flexible materials. Today it is mostly plastics, silicones or rubbers. But other polymers or even metals are also used depending on the case; the only limits are the ingenuity of the researchers and the materials at their disposal.
These robots can then use the flexibility and elasticity of their materials to perform various and varied tasks. It can be simple locomotionsbut also of much more complex tasks which are manipulative. For example, there are already manipulators in the industry based on flexible parts that allow machines to grip very delicate objects, such as eggs, without problems.
But this is only a limited example, which is very far from being able to identify the almost unlimited potential of soft robotics. Since they appeared, these devices have already begun to completely revolutionize our approach to certain problems. Even the NASA’s prestigious Langley Research Center has made it one of its main lines of research, with the aim of creating new Incredibly innovative exploration devices.
Virtually unlimited potential in medicine
But despite all these great promises in the industry, there is yet another area where they are even more promising: medicine. Indeed, soft robots already promise to revolutionize surgery and open the door to new generations of lightweight and high-performance prostheses. But it is especially at the time of making a diagnosis that they could prove to be formidable.
And this is precisely what English researchers from the University of Leeds intend to do. They have developed a tiny flexible robot capable of traveling through the respiratory system to fight cancer.
This little machine 2mm diameter is composed of a set of small segments of a material specially developed for the occasion; it is flexible, elastic, halfway between a soft elastomer and a rubber-like material. But above all, this material is perfectly biocompatiblewhich means it can come into contact with fabrics without a problem.
In addition, each of the segments is magnetized. Researchers can therefore guide by adjusting the magnetic field around the patient. For this, they use two large magnets mounted on articulated arms (see below). They can thus indicate to the robot in which direction it should progress while controlling its overall shape so that it does not damage the surrounding tissues.
Soon a real therapeutic solution?
Thanks to these properties, it can thus survey the lungs or the bronchi in search of any suspicious growth or cluster of cells. And the most interesting thing is that his work does not stop there. Once arrived at a suspicious site, the robot can perform a small biopsy itself and bring a sample back to the researchers.
In some cases, the robot could even carry something directly treat the area in question. A very exciting prospect. Because today, most cancer treatments are very aggressive; by being able to deliver them in a very controlled and precise manner, it would theoretically be possible to drastically increase their effectiveness while reducing side effects.
At present, this robot has only been tested on replicas of the respiratory system. But the very promising preliminary results convinced the researchers to take the next step. From now on, their objective will be to test it in the bronchi and lungs of a corpse.
If it manages to evolve there satisfactorily, the researchers will then be able to consider a clinical trial protocole. And in the long term, the researchers even consider that this concept could be adapted to explore, or even treat any part of the body in a precise, effective, and mostly non-invasive way; a full box on the medical level, in short.
This system will therefore not arrive in hospitals for some time yet. But it is a spectacular example of a technology that is advancing at high speed. If it already has some marginal applications today, it seems obvious that we have only explored a tiny part of the potential of flexible robots.
The research paper is available here.