Small wonders: microbots in medicine and engineering

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Miniaturization and the Internet of Things (IoT) appear to be perfect bedfellows. Driven by miniaturization in the smartphone industry, the advancement of bot and drone technology relies not only on digital technology, but on weight: the size of the sensors, the weight of cameras and other onboard smart equipment means the smaller, the better. What is the state of play and what’s next?

Recent innovative tiny robot designs include HAMR, a cockroach-sized robot that can walk, jump and swim. It is fast, too – it can “walk” at around 18 inches a second. Its designers at Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences foresee HAMR finding practical applications in exploring confined environments, such as searching for defects within engine cavities or in pipes.

Harvard has also been developing insectoid robots that both fly and navigate like bees but also ape their behavior: a gust of wind could take an aerial bot off course, but these tiny robobees are intelligent enough to adjust their flight plan accordingly and not lose direction or altitude. One potential application could be pollination.

Similar to HAMR is SWARM, a joint project developed by Rolls-Royce Motor Cars, the University of Nottingham and Harvard University. These are tiny, engine-fixing robots measuring about 0.4 inches in diameter and designed to use tiny cameras to provide video feeds of hard-to-access parts of an engine. This is their current iteration, but project engineers hope that, in time, SWARM’s mini nature could be expanded to applications like performing visual inspections of aircraft engines without the need to remove the engines from the aircraft.

Miniaturization has also been impacting the drone marketplace, with new models emerging all the time. Last year saw the release of the Dobby by ZeroTech, a foldable drone equipped with a 4K camera that folds up and fits in a pocket. Tiny camera drones for personal use can now be bought for under $30, making them accessible to everybody. Miniaturization has driven the development of these types of drones, and they look set to play a significant role in the market’s growth: Technavio predicts that drones will grow at a CAGR of 36 percent between 2018 and 2022.

Big possibilities for IoT in the medical industry

2018 has seen major advancements of the use of microrobots in medical treatments. Researchers at the City University of Hong Kong published a study in Science Robotics where they posit that microrobots could be used to diagnose diseases, deliver medicines and even perform surgery, all at cellular level. The researchers have already carried out pilot tests, including using microrobots to successfully deliver cells to a target site in a live mouse. The potential real world application for this could mean using microrobotics to deliver payloads to exact locations inside the human body, creating a new kind of non-invasive, personalized medicine.

Scientists have been working for years to design ever-smaller robots that can enable more precise medicine, and today miniaturization has helped them create medical microrobots measuring from a millimeter down to a few microns. These tiny bots can be used to diagnose or monitor a disease in real time, measure a diabetic’s blood sugar levels, or as previously mentioned, deliver targeted therapies directly to precise locations such as tumors.

Propulsion has always been a big challenge, and innovative designers have developed swimming microrobots able to navigate through humans’ bodily fluids. These bots imitate nature, and propel themselves using metachronal waves similar to those used by ciliates in the human body. The intention is to use them for everything from heart treatments to ophthalmic surgery.

In the future, microrobots could be used to map out human physiologies, clean plaque from arteries and be used to destroy kidney stones. The possibilities are huge.

Small bots, big growth

What seems clear is that while many microrobot projects and ideas are in their nascent stages, the industry is set for big growth and the possibilities are huge. According to Energias Market Research, the global microrobots market will grow at 65 percent CAGR until 2024 as industries find homes for the technology. Furthermore, as power sources also continue to benefit from miniaturization and batteries get smaller, the potential for microrobots in IoT increases, too. Expect to hear a lot more about tiny robots.

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Steve Harris

I’ve been writing about technology for around 15 years and today focus mainly on all things telecoms - next generation networks, mobile, cloud computing and plenty more. For Futurity Media I am based in the Asia-Pacific region and keep a close eye on all things tech happening in that exciting part of the world.