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These Flabby Gel Robots Could Deliver Life-Saving Drugs by Inching Along Using Changes in Temperature


Credit: Ashiwarya Pantula – Johns Hopkins University.

A “soft robot” can move its way through the human body solely by the changing of temperatures, and could be an excellent way to deliver precision doses of key medications.

These “gelbots” aren’t really robots at all, but little capsules filled with a water-based gel that through expansion and contraction, pushes the tiny robot along like an inchworm.

Robots are made almost exclusively of hard materials like metals and plastics, a fundamental obstacle in the push to create robots ideal for human biomedical advancements.

Water-based gels, which feel like gummy bears, are one of the most promising materials in the field of soft robotics. Researchers have previously demonstrated that gels which swell or shrink in response to temperature can be used to create smart structures.

credit: Ashiwarya Pantula. Johns Hopkins University.

Here, the Johns Hopkins University team demonstrated for the first time, how swelling and shrinking of gels can be strategically manipulated to move robots forward and backward on flat surfaces, or to essentially have them crawl in certain directions with an undulating, wave-like motion.

“It seems very simplistic but this is an object moving without batteries, without wiring, without an external power supply of any kind—just on the swelling and shrinking of gel,” said senior author David Gracias, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Johns Hopkins University.

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“Our study shows how the manipulation of shape, dimensions and patterning of gels can tune morphology to embody a kind of intelligence for locomotion.”

As well as potentially delivering targeted medications inside the human body, the development team considers them ideal for oceanfloor monitoring.

Made of little more than simple stuff, the team 3D-printed all their gelbots, and posit it as another advantage of soft robotics over hard robotics.

Gracias hopes to train the gelbots to crawl in response to variations in human biomarkers and biochemicals, although skin surface temperature manipulation with hot and cold objects could also work to inch it along.

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He also plans to test other worm and marine organism-inspired shapes and forms and would like to incorporate cameras and sensors on their bodies.

Locamotive robots, even until recently, have remained pretty near to human and other animal forms. Softer robotic configurations allow engineers to stretch their mind out, such as another inchworm inspired robot from MIT.

It uses 12-sided hollow cubes as both its own body parts and as a flexible building material. Allowing it to construct more robots and dissassemble them in relation to the job on hand.

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