Microrobots could operate on the human body

Researchers at ETH Zurich and Paul Scherrer Institute have developed a microrobot shaped like a bird. It is controlled by magnetic fields and could one day perform operations on the human body.

Laura Heyderman (left) and Tian-​Yun Huang (center) look at a model of the origami bird, while Jizhai Cui observes the real microrobot under a microscope. Image Credit: Paul Scherrer Institute, Mahir Dzambegovic

Researchers at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH) and at Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI) have developed a micromachine that is reminiscent of an origami bird and measures just a few micrometers, announced a statement. The robot moves without a visible force, flapping its wings or bending its neck and retracting its head. These actions are made possible by magnetism: the researchers assembled the micromachine from materials that contain small nanomagnets, which can be programmed to assume a particular magnetic orientation.

"The movements performed by the microrobot take place within milliseconds. But programming of the nanomagnets only takes a few nanoseconds,” explained Laura Heyderman, head of the Laboratory for Multiscale Materials Experiments at the PSI and professor for Mesoscopic Systems at ETH. She added that this makes it possible to program the different movements so that the microbird can first flap its wings, then slip to the side and afterwards flap again. 

"It is conceivable that, in the future, an autonomous micromachine will navigate through human blood vessels and perform biomedical tasks such as killing cancer cells," said Bradley Nelson, head of the Institute of Robotics and Intelligent Systems at ETH. Other conceivable application areas include flexible microelectronics or microlenses that change their optical properties. Applications are also possible in which the characteristics of surfaces change, according to the statement. "For example, they could be used to create surfaces that can either be wetted by water or repel water," revealed PSI researcher Jizhai Cui.

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