According to the National Capital Poison Center, approximately 3,500 batteries are swallowed each year, mostly by young children. Most of the time, these batteries will pass through the body normally, but occasionally they get stuck; and when they do, they can cause serious problems. A battery lodged in the esophagus or stomach can create an electric current that can cause tissue damage or difficulty breathing. While it doesn’t seem like a major issue, removing batteries that get stuck often requires semi-invasive endoscopic techniques where an endoscopist has to use a long, flexible tube with a light and camera at the end to locate the battery and remove it. Even though this procedure is non-surgical, it can still be an expensive hassle. That’s where a new “origami robot” comes in.
The result of a collaboration between MIT, the University of Sheffield, and the Tokyo Institute of Technology, this small device, made out of a “biocompatible material,” looks like a thin strip of paper folded up accordion-style. The little robot is ingested via an ice capsule that melts within the body, and it is then manipulated from the outside using magnetic fields. By changing its body shape and weight distribution, the robot uses friction to move around, a technique that the research has dubbed “stick-slip” motion.
Though the device is not currently deployed, its ability to help dislodge and aid in the removal of ingested batteries and even patch up small internal wounds makes it a valuable step forward for medical technology. Daniela Rus, one of the lead researchers on the study in the robot’s creation, said in the MIT News report, “It’s really exciting to see our small origami robots doing something with potential important applications to health care.” She went on to point out that for many medical emergencies that require careful, precise work inside the body, a small, untethered device is necessary. “It’s really difficult to control and place a robot inside the body if the robot is attached to a tether,” she said. At this point, the robot is still in a fairly early stage. But, as the technology progresses, origami bots like this one may eventually be able to perform even more complex surgical tasks.
By Andrew Janson
Top photo by Melanie Gonick/MIT