Scientists in South Korea have developed a remote-controlled microrobot that can travel through the human bloodstream and deliver treatment directly to the organs that need it.

The team at the Department of Robotics Engineering at the Daegu Gyeongbuk Institute of Science and Technology (DGIST) developed a propulsion system that mimics the hair-like stroke motion of paramecia (ciliated protozoa) to create a microrobot that is highly maneuverable and moves at least eight times faster than its most recent predecessor.

South Korea is carving a path as a leading hub in medical robotic systems thanks to its strengths in IT, biotechnology and engineering, and government financial support, as evidenced by the Korea Institute for Robot Industry Advancement (KIRIA). Local company Curexo Technology Corporation is leading the charge as the developer of Robodoc, the only fully automated robot for orthopaedic surgery. It is one of three commercialised surgical robots in the world, and has performed more than 30,000 joint replacement surgeries worldwide. Fellow Korean companies Hyundai Heavy Industries and Meere Company are also developing medical robots, while a number of academic institutions, including Chonnam National University’s Robot Research Initiative (RRI) and the Institute of Innovative Surgical Technology at Hanyang University, are innovators in the field.

DGIST, meanwhile, is a leading research centre for projects in six areas known as MIREBraiN: Emerging Materials (M), Information & Communication Engineering (I), Medical Robots (R), Green Energy (E), Brain Science (B), and New Biology (N). The pronunciation of MIRE in Korean is the same as that of ‘future’, and the institute aims to be a world-leader in future convergence technology.

The DGIST team looked to nature for a solution to address the challenge of creating a microrobot that can travel in a viscous fluid, such as blood. Researchers used 3D laser lithography to create a ciliated polymer base structure for the microrobot. They then deposited a layer of nickel and titanium over the cilia to provide magnetic actuation and ensure it is compatible with a biological system. The researchers then set the cilia beating back and forth using an electromagnetic coil system.

The 220 micrometer-long robot can move 340 micrometers per second, and its controller can shift the angle of the microbot from zero to 120 degrees to navigate its way through veins.

Project leader Professor Hongsoo Choi said: “With precise three-dimensional fabrication techniques and magnetic control technology, my team has developed microrobots mimicking cilia’s asymmetric reciprocation movement, which has been never realised so far. We’ll continually strive to study and experiment on microrobots that can efficiently move and operate in the human body, so that they can be utilised in chemical and cell delivery as well as in non-invasive surgery.”


(via DGIST, New Atlas and FT)

Featured image: The microrobot uses a propulsion system inspired by the motion of the paramecium (Credit:wir0man/Depositphotos)