Are microscopic robots the future of invasive human treatment?

Microrobots the size of single cells could soon patrol the human body, according to professors at Cornell.

In 1959, Cornell’s Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman talked up the possibility of ‘shrinking technology’ revolutionising the medicinal industry in his lifetime. He may have been wide of the mark in that regard, having passed in 1988, but recent breakthroughs from the same University have brought his industry foresight into fruition.

It does sound a little freaky, but yes, we are talking about a troop of microscopic robots potentially entering and scuttling around the human body. Researchers have developed microscopic robots – or microbots – in the past, but crucially this marks the first occasion that a prototype has successfully been able to move of its own accord.

Created by researchers at Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania, this winning model incorporates semiconductor components which can be controlled using standard electronic signals. Employing the same circuitry fundamentals that have powered our computers and phones for half a century, researchers found that the best solution was also the simplest.

Small enough to be injected through a hypodermic needle, the microbot measures around five microns thick, 40 microns wide, and 70 microns in length, and its drone like shape is operated through two major systems. Two sets of dexterous legs thinner than human hair are coated in a hyperactive variant of platinum and are powered by two separate photovoltaics in the body, which convert light energy into electrical charge.

When submerged in liquid and held under precise laser zaps, the microbot began to propel itself forward.  Through sequentially charging the front and back photovoltaics – which are responsible for controlling each set of legs – the team was able to direct the microbot throughout an artificial recreation of the human body in under a minute.

I know what you’re thinking: ‘that’s not autonomous then,’ and technically you’re correct. The ultimate goal is to eventually have these units whizzing around en masse restructuring materials, suturing blood vessels, and probing swaths of the human brain, but fabricating microbots with onboard power sources isn’t a simple task. Besides, experts claim that with our current understanding of the tech, external control is making the process of both testing and assembly far more streamlined.

Requiring as little as 10 nanowatts to function and costing roughly one-tenth of a penny to create (using standard lithography printing and silicon wafer), this particular version of nanobot could be key to ushering in a bunch of ground-breaking medical practices involving the treatment of surface tissue, such as the eyes.

The concept of exploring the human body first-hand at a molecular level has been something of a sci-fi obsession in Hollywood and cartoons over the years, but we’re on the cusp of finally making it a reality.

These tiny machines really are an enormous feat.

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