(Nanowerk News) Pangolins are interesting creatures. This animal looks like a walking pine cone, as it is the only mammal completely covered in hard scales. Their scales are made of keratin, just like our hair and nails. The scales overlap and are connected directly to the soft layer of skin beneath. This special arrangement allows the animal to curl up into a ball in case of danger.
While pangolins have many other unique features, researchers from the Department of Physical Intelligence at the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems in Stuttgart, led by Prof. Dr. Metin Sitti, was fascinated by how the pangolin could curl up on its scaly body. in an instant. They took animals as models and developed flexible robots made of soft and hard components that, like animals, become balls in the blink of an eye – with the added feature of the robots being able to give off heat when needed.
In a research paper published in Nature Communications (“Anteater-inspired strapless magnetic robot for on-demand biomedical heating applications”), first author Ren Hao Soon and colleagues presented the design of a robot that is no more than two centimeters long and consists of two layers: a soft layer made of polymer inlaid with tiny magnetic particles and a hard component made of metal elements arranged in overlapping layers. . So, even though the robot is made of solid metal components, it is still soft and flexible for use inside the human body.
When the robot is exposed to a low-frequency magnetic field, the researchers can roll the robot and move it back and forth as desired. The metal elements protruded like animal scales, without hurting the surrounding tissue. Once rolled up, the robot can transport particles such as drugs. The vision is that such a small machine will one day travel through our digestive system, for example.
Dual use: freely movable and hot
When the robot is exposed to a high-frequency magnetic field, it heats up to over 70oC thanks to the built-in metal. Heat energy is used in several medical procedures, such as treating thrombosis, stopping bleeding, and removing tumor tissue. Untethered robots that can move freely, even though they are made of hard elements like metal and can also emit heat, are rare.
Therefore, robotic pangolins are considered promising for modern medicine. It could one day reach even the narrowest and most sensitive areas of the body in a minimally invasive and gentle way and radiate heat as needed. It is a vision of the future. Now, in a video, the researchers demonstrate how they can flexibly guide the robot through animal tissue and artificial organs.