The Pill Robot Is Coming

“The idea that you could repair a human body by swallowing something, instead of making cuts, is amazing,” says innovator Daniela Rus.

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This robot unfolds like an origami after it’s swallowed.

Courtesy Melanie Gonick/MIT

Innovator Daniela Rus
Age 53
Director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory

Form and function
Squeezed into a pill, this robot unfolds like an origami after it’s swallowed. It can be guided with a tiny magnet to remove a foreign object from the stomach or treat a wound by administering medication.

Origin
Last summer, Rus and her colleagues began working to adapt an earlier foldable robot for medical use.

Insertion
Rus’s team places the accordion-shaped robot into an inch-long, 0.09-ounce pill, which dissolves in the stomach in a minute or two. The robot then expands to 1.4 in. by 0.7 in. by 0.3 in.

Illustration by 731

Navigation
Doctors can generate magnetic fields near the patient to guide the robot through the stomach, where they can manipulate it to perform tasks.

Aftercare
The biodegradable robot breaks down in the stomach like food.

Funding
The project’s money (Rus wouldn’t say how much) comes from a National Science Foundation grant.

Cost
The equipment to manipulate the robot is pricey, but its own components cost less than $100, Rus says.

Next Steps
Rus and her team have tested the robot in a silicon-molded prototype stomach and are seeking approval from MIT’s animal care committee to try it in pigs. She says they’re also looking to raise more money. “The experiments they’ve been doing are very promising,” says Ken Goldberg, a robotics professor at the University of California at Berkeley. Until now, he says, “nothing has been able to essentially walk inside the body.”

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