There’s a Microbot on This Penny That Can Travel Through Your Body

Engineers are building microscopic robots that could deliver medicine to an exact spot in your body. Here’s how they work.

Microscopic robots, called microscale magnetic tumbling robots, or microTUMs, could explore your digestive system. These 4 to 800 micron long tiny bots are designed to deliver a specific drug to a specific place in your body. When you take a normal pill, the medication dissipates throughout your body, hopefully hitting the prescribed target, but certain areas are harder to find. For example, a 1 centimeter peptic ulcer in a 10 meter gastrointestinal tract becomes a needle in the haystack for a pill. These robots are designed to navigate your gastrointestinal haystack.

The human body is vastly complex and the robots face tough resistance towards their destination, so mobility is key. There’s isn't room for a battery or wires in the tiny robots, so they are powered from the outside using magnetic fields. The process is, once you’ve ingested these robots, their two magnetic ends, which are embedded with neodymium-iron-boron (NbFeB) particles, are paired with an constantly rotating magnetic field, the microTUMs can then be set in their course to tumble over the bumps and trenches inside your body.

The tumbling motion of these microTUMs plays an important role because it allows the bot to be in constant contact with the surface. The robots are versalite, malleable, and in most cases have autonomous motion capabilities. But it’s not easy designing things this small. Engineers have to understand forces that only exist on a micron scale — like van der Waals forces — but are an attraction between molecules that could, along with electrostatic forces, stop these bots in their tracks.

The microTUM researchers were able to model those forces in their lab and create a tumbling solution which keeps them rolling. Once they find their way to the problem, the robots release the drug they’re carrying, and hopefully you are healed. However, scientists at Caltech are thinking about a slightly different medical micro-solution.

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