Having stomach troubles? Try swallowing an origami robot

Has your child swallowed a small battery? In the future, a tiny robot made from pig gut could capture it and expel it. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are designing an ingestible robot that could be used to patch wounds, deliver medicine or dislodge a foreign object. They call their experiment an “origami robot” because the accordion-shaped gadget gets folded up and frozen into an ice capsule. “You swallow the robot, and when it gets to your stomach the ice melts and the robot unfolds,” said Daniela Rus, a professor who directs MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. “Then, we can direct it to a very precise location.”

We found that sausage casing has the best properties when it comes to folding and unfolding and controllability.

Daniela Rus

Researchers use remote-control joysticks to change the magnetic field, allowing the robot to slip and crawl through the stomach on the way to the object it is trying to retrieve or the wound where it must deliver drugs. The robot’s flexible frame is biodegradable, made of the same dried pig intestine used for sausage casing – although it wouldn’t be hard to make a kosher version, Rus said. “It’s a nifty idea,” but it could be a decade or so before hospitals could use such a device, said William Messner, a professor of mechanical engineering at Tufts University in Massachusetts who is not involved with the project.