Increasingly small robots may carry out their functions even inside the human body. No, it isn’t a science-fiction dream but a real possibility. However, this future depends on one condition: The miniaturization of these devices requires them to possess the same “softness” and flexibility as biological tissues.
This is the opinion of scientists like Antonio De Simone, from SISSA (the International School for Advanced Studies of Trieste, Italy) and Marino Arroyo from the Polytechnic Univ. of Catalonia, who have just published a paper in the Journal of the Mechanics and Physics of Solids. Taking inspiration from unicellular water microorganisms, they studied the locomotion mechanisms of “soft robots”.
“If I think of the robots of tomorrow, what comes to mind are the tentacles of an octopus or the trunk of an elephant rather than the mechanical arm of a crane or the inner workings of a watch. And if I think of microrobots then I think of unicellular organisms moving in water. The robots of the future will be increasingly like biological organisms,” explains De Simone.
De Simone and his team at SISSA have been studying the movement of euglenids, unicellular aquatic animals, for several years. One of the aims of De Simone’s research—which has recently been awarded a European Research Council Advanced Grant of 1,300,000 euro—is to transfer the knowledge acquired in euglenids to microrobotics, a field that represents a promising challenge for the future. Microrobots may carry out a number of important functions, including delivery of drugs directly to where they are needed, the re-opening of occluded blood vessels, or helping to close wounds. In their study, De Simone and Arroyo simulated euglenid species with different shapes and locomotion methods, based chiefly on cell body deformation and swelling, to describe in detail the mechanics and characteristics of the movement obtained. “Our work not only helps to understand the movement mechanism of these unicellular organisms, but it provides a knowledge base to plan the locomotion system of future micro-robots,” says De Simone.
De Simone and Arroyo’s paper has been selected to appear in the special issue of the J. Mech. Phys. Solids published to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the prestigious journal.