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Tiny soft surgery robot inspired by geckos



A tiny robot that could one day help doctors perform surgery was inspired by the incredible gripping ability of geckos and the efficient movement of inchworms.

The new robot, developed by engineers at the University of Waterloo in Canada, utilises ultraviolet (UV) light and magnetic force to move on any surface, even up walls and across ceilings.

It is the first soft robot of its kind that doesn’t require connection to an external power supply, enabling remote operation and versatility for potential applications including assisting surgeons and searching otherwise inaccessible places.

Dr Boxin Zhao, a professor of chemical engineering, said:

“This work is the first time a holistic soft robot has climbed on inverted surfaces, advancing state-of-the-art soft robotics innovation.

“We are optimistic about its potential, with much more development, in several different fields.”

Constructed from a smart material, the robot – dubbed the GeiwBot by researchers because of the creatures that inspired it – can be altered at the molecular level to mimic how geckos stick and unstick the grippers on their feet.

This enables the robot, which is about four centimetres long, three millimetres wide and one millimetre thick, to climb on a vertical wall and across the ceiling without being tethered to a power source.

Tiny new robot – dubbed the GeiwBot Credit: University of Waterloo

The researchers constructed the robot using liquid crystal elastomers and synthetic adhesive pads.

A light-responsive polymer strip simulates the arching and stretching motion of an inchworm, while magnet gecko-like pads at either end do the gripping.

Zhao said:

“Even though there are still limitations to overcome, this development represents a significant milestone for utilising biomimicry and smart materials for soft robots.

“Nature is a great source of inspiration and nanotechnology is an exciting way to apply its lessons.”

The untethered soft robot paves the way for potential surgical applications via remote operation inside the human body and for sensing or searching in dangerous or hard-to-reach places during rescue operations.

Next, the researchers aim to develop a solely light-driven climbing soft robot that doesn’t require a magnetic field and uses near-infrared radiation instead of UV light to improve biocompatibility.

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