BY KIM BELLARD
If You’ve Seen One Robot – Wait, What?
We think we know robots, from the old school Robbie the Robot to the beloved R2-D2/C-3PO to the acrobatic Boston Dynamics robots or the very human-like Westworld ones. But you have to love those scientists: they keep coming up with new versions, ones that shatter our preconceptions. Two, in particular, caught my attention, in part because both expect to have health care applications, and in part because of how they’re described.
Hint: the marketing people are going to have some work to do on the names.
Let’s start with the robot called by its creators – a team at The Chinese University of Hong Kong — a “magnetic slime robot,” which some in the press have referred to as a “magnetic turd robot” (see what I mean about the names?). It has what are called “visco-elastic properties,” which co-creator Professor Li Zhang explained means “sometimes it behaves like a solid, sometimes it behaves like a liquid…When you touch it very quickly it behaves like a solid. When you touch it gently and slowly it behaves like a liquid”
The slime is made from a polymer called polyvinyl alcohol, borax, and particles of neodymium magnet. The magnetic particles allow it to be controlled by other magnets, but also are toxic, so researchers added a protective layer of silica, which would, in theory, allow it to be ingested (although Professor Zhang warned: “The safety [would] also strongly depend on how long you would keep them inside of your body.”).
The big advantage of the slime is that it can easily deform and travel through very tight spaces. The researchers believe it is capable of “grasping solid objects, swallowing and transporting harmful things, human motion monitoring, and circuit switching and repair.” It even has self-healing properties.
Watch it in action:
In the video, among other tasks, the slime surrounds a small battery; researchers see using the slime to assist when someone swallows one. “To avoid toxic electrolytes leak[ing] out, we can maybe use this kind of slime robot to do an encapsulation, to form some kind of inert coating,” Professor Zhang said.
As fate would have it, the news of the discovery hit the on April 1st, leading some to think it was an April Fool’s joke, which the researchers insist it is not. Others have compared the magnetic slime to Flubber or Venom, but we’ll have to hope we make better use of it.
It is not yet autonomous, so some would argue it is not actually a robot, but Professor Zhang insists, “The ultimate goal is to deploy it like a robot.”
If magnetic slime/turd robots don’t do it for you, how about a “magnetic tentacle robot” – which some have deemed a “snakelike” robot? This one comes from researchers at the STORM Lab at the University of Leeds. STORM Lab’s mission is:
We strive to enable earlier diagnosis, wider screening and more effective treatment for life-threatening diseases such as cancer…We do so by creating affordable and intelligent robotic solutions that can improve the quality of life for people undergoing flexible endoscopy and laparoscopic surgery in settings with limited access to healthcare infrastructures.
In this particular case, rather than using traditional bronchoscopes, which might have a diameter of 3.5 – 4 millimeters and which are guided by physicians, the magnetic tenacle robot offers a smaller, more flexible, and autonomous option. Professor Pietro Valdastri, the STORM Lab Director, explained:
A magnetic tentacle robot or catheter that measures 2 millimetres and whose shape can be magnetically controlled to conform to the bronchial tree anatomy can reach most areas of the lung, and would be an important clinical tool in the investigation and treatment of possible lung cancer and other lung diseases.
Moreover, “Our system uses an autonomous magnetic guidance system which does away for the need for patients to be X-rayed while the procedure is carried out.” A patient-specific route, based on pre-operative scans, would be programmed into the robotic system. It could then inspect suspicious lesions or even deliver drugs.
Dr. Cecillia Pompili, a thoracic surgeon who was a member of them team, says: “This new technology will allow to diagnose and treat lung cancer more reliably and safely, guiding the instruments at the periphery of the lungs without the use of additional X-rays.”
Watch it in action:
The robot was tested on a 3D replica of a bronchial tree, and will next be tested on lungs from a cadaver. It will likely take several years to reach clinical settings. The team has also created a prototype of a low-cost endoscope and a robotic colonoscopy system, among other things.
The researchers conclude:
We demonstrate that the proposed approach can perform less invasive navigation and more accurate targeting, compared with previously proposed magnetic catheterization techniques… we believe that atraumatic autonomous exploration of a wide range of anatomical features will be possible, with the potential to reduce trauma and improve diagnostic yield.”
“It’s creepy,” Professor Valdastri admitted to The Washington Post. “But my goal … is to find a way to reach as deep as possible inside the human body in the least invasive way as possible… Depending on where a tumor is, this may be the only way to reach [it] successfully.”
Nitish V. Thakor, a professor of biomedical engineering at Johns Hopkins University, told The Post: I can imagine a future where a full CAT scan is done of the lungs, and the surgeon sits down on a computer and lays out this navigation path of this kind of a snake robot and says: ‘Go get it.’ ” He also sees potential for uses outside the lungs, such as in the heart.
Similarly, Dr. Janani S. Reisenauer, a surgeon at The Mayo Clinic, declared to The Post: “If it’s a small, maneuverable autonomous system that can get out there and then do something when it’s out there, that would be revolutionary.”
Personally, I’m still holding out hope for nanoparticles, but these kinds of soft, flexible robots could be important until we get there. Sure, maybe people will be reluctant to be told they have to ingest magnetic slime – much less a magnetic turd – or have a snakelike robot put down their throats, but it may beat having a scope inserted or being cut open.
The researchers can keep working on the robots; others of us can work on better names.
Kim is a former emarketing exec at a major Blues plan, editor of the late & lamented Tincture.io, and now regular THCB contributor.