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Edible electronics: watch tiny robot swim through a body to deliver medicine where it’s needed

By Alma Fabiani

Jun 15, 2022


When we previously covered edible electronics on SCREENSHOT—devices that can be broken down and digested to perform many useful functions inside the human body—little did we know that rapid progress in this field would be made in such a short time.

And yet here we are, less than three months later, and we’re already witnessing advancements in the form of a tiny amphibious robot which can swim through one’s bodily fluids and navigate ‘obstacles’ to deliver drugs exactly where they’re needed.

As initially reported by The Telegraph, Stanford University has recently released footage showing its pea-sized millibot jumping over hurdles and even leaping through the air before plunging into a tank of water to collect a small load.

Once fully submerged, the wireless robot swims to a new area, letting go of its precious shipment before climbing a small flight of steps out of the tank. Sounds pretty insane, right? But that’s not even the most impressive part. The robot was also tested inside a pig stomach, where it was filmed moving easily around muscle tissue before reaching a designated spot where it delivered a blue liquid (replacing actual liquid medicine for this experiment) it had been carrying throughout its journey.

The unnamed robot is origami-based—made from folded materials which can be squeezed and released to perform actions, such as propelling it forward or even pumping out medicine. It is manoeuvred using magnetic fields which can be altered in both strength and orientation. A hole in the robot’s centre helps it swim better while also providing a suction area to allow cargo to be picked up and transported.

When it comes to edible electronics in general, as well as this specialised robot, scientists hope that a similar strategy could be used to place high-concentration drugs exactly where they need to be in the body. Just to give you an idea of how useful that would be, as of now, when people swallow a drug or have it injected into their body, it is forced to spread throughout the entire system, in turn limiting how powerful treatments can be.

Now, think of what a robot that is capable of delivering a drug to a precise location could achieve? I’ll tell you what: it could allow extremely strong medicines to be deployed only where they would do the most good, while simultaneously shielding other parts of the body.

Adding more potential positives to consider amid this scientific breakthrough, The Telegraph wrote: “While over-the-counter pills have cured many ailments for decades, biomedical researchers have only recently begun exploring new ways to improve targeted drug delivery when treating more complicated medical conditions, like cardiovascular disease or cancer.”

For example, chemotherapy can often be extremely damaging to healthy organs, so finding a way to directly target tumours and tumours only could radically improve treatments.

The Stanford University team also believe the bot could one day be used to carry instruments or cameras into the body, revolutionising the way doctors examine patients. They’re currently looking to scale down the invention which will be continuously tested in animals for some time before its eventual experimentation in humans.