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Scientists have developed tiny elastic robots that can change shape depending on their surroundings and can swim through fluids, an advance which may help deliver drugs to diseased tissue in future.

The researchers from Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL) and ETH Zurich in Switzerland drew inspiration from bacteria to design the highly flexible biocompatible micro-robots.

These micro-robots that are highly flexible are made of hydrogel nanocomposites that contain magnetic nanoparticles allowing them to be controlled via an electromagnetic field.

As a result, these devices are able to swim through fluids and modify their shape when needed. They can also pass through narrow blood vessels and intricate systems without compromising on speed or manoeuvrability, said the group of scientists led by Selman Sakar at Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and Bradley Nelson at ETH Zurich.

The study, published in the journal Science Advances, describes a method for programming the robot’s shape so that it can easily travel through fluids that are dense, viscous or moving at rapid speeds.

“Nature has evolved a multitude of microorganisms that change shape as their environmental conditions change. This basic principle inspired our microrobot design,” Nelson said.

Nelson said, “The key challenge for us was to develop the physics that describe the types of changes we were interested in, and then to integrate this with new fabrication technologies.”

“Our robots have a special composition and structure that allows them to adapt to the characteristics of the fluid they are moving through,” said Selman Sakar from EPFL.

Fabricating miniaturised robots presents a host of challenges, which the scientists addressed using an origami-based folding method.

Their novel locomotion strategy employs embodied intelligence, which is an alternative to the classical computation paradigm that is performed by embedded electronic systems.

In addition to offering enhanced effectiveness, these miniaturized soft robots can also be manufactured easily at a reasonable cost.

The deformations can be “programmed” in advance without sensors or actuators, allowing the robot to automatically morph into the most efficient shape, according to the study.

For now, the research team is working on improving the performance for swimming through complex fluids like those found in the human body.

(Inputs from the sources)

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