Space & Innovation

Ingestible Tiny Robots Can Now Save Your Life

Scientists make robots in all sizes, but did you know some are so small we can ingest them? Just how small can robots get?

"Take two robots and call me in the morning."

Thanks to rapid advances in nanotechnology, it's entirely possible that at someday soon, some wiseacre doctor will say these words. In today's tag-team edition of DNews, Trace Dominguez and Julian Huguet investigate the realm of medical nanobots.

In broad terms, medical nanobots refer to very tiny machines that you can swallow, inject into your bloodstream, or otherwise introduce to the body. These bots are designed to practice medicine from the inside, as it were, and we're closer than you might think to deploying this science fiction technology.

For instance, in 2015 scientists from MIT devised an ingestible origami robot that folds itself down to the size of a pill. The origami design not only allows the bot to get small, it provides a method of locomotion while inside the body. The researchers ran a series of experiments using a simulated human stomach and esophagus, and a set of external magnets to guide the bot along the stomach wall.

RELATED: World's Tiniest Engines Could Power Micro Robots

The MIT bot was able to retrieve a "swallowed" button battery and even patch a wound within the fake stomach. To keep pace in their ongoing bicoastal rivalry, scientists from University of California ran a similar experiment with tiny bots just 20 micrometers in length. When fed to a mouse, these machines shot off towards the stomach's walls and embedded themselves in the lining to deliver medicine. It was the first instance of a nanobot being used on a living animal.

Over in Europe, meanwhile, researchers from ETH Zurich have invented robots so small that three billion of them can fit into a teaspoon. The design team hopes the bots will someday be injected directly into your eye, where they can swim through the vitreous humor and poke the blood vessels to break up blood clots.

Amazing, right? Yeah, you first. For more details and squirm-inducing examples, check out the video here from Trace and Julian. Or for a macro take on the subject, click on over to our investigation of robots in space.

-- Glenn McDonald

Learn More:

MIT: Ingestible Origami Robot

Smithsonian: Scientists Test Out Tiny Robots Meant to Travel Inside a Human Body

CNN: Will Nanotechnology Soon Allow You to 'Swallow the Doctor'?