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Researchers at Ohio State helped develop these tiny robots that could advance noninvasive surgery.

Jo McCulty

Know when to fold ’em

Origami techniques are key to these tiny wireless robots that open the door to less invasive surgery.

Wireless soft robots could one day be sent into humans, potentially opening the door for less invasive surgeries and ways to deliver treatments for conditions such as colon polyps, stomach cancer and aortic artery blockages.

Researchers from Ohio State and the Georgia Institute of Technology detailed their discovery, which makes use of the principles of Japanese origami, in a study published in September in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Doctors would use magnetic fields to steer the soft robot inside the body, delivering medications or treatments with precision, says Renee Zhao, an author of the paper and assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Ohio State.

“The robot is like a small actuator,” Zhao says, “but because we can apply magnetic fields, we can send it into the body without a tether. That makes it significantly less invasive than our current technologies.”

The robot is made of magnetic polymer, a soft composite that can be controlled remotely. Robotic delivery of medical treatment is not a new concept, but most previous designs used traditional robots, made of stiff, hard materials. The “soft” component of this robot is crucial, Zhao says.

The robot in this case can be used to deliver multiple treatments selectively based on the independently controlled folding and deploying of the origami units. The origami allows the material to “open” when it reaches the site, unfurling treatment along with it.

This origami-style delivery of medication also is not new, but previous designs were more cumbersome and often slow. The soft robot, Zhao says, removes some of that bulkiness. The magnetic fields allowed the researchers — in the lab, not yet in humans — to control the direction, intensity and speed of the material’s folding and deployment.

About the author

About the author

Laura Arenschield

Laura Arenschield is senior science writer at Ohio State who writes about research in disciplines ranging from astronomy to climate change to technology. In a previous life, she reported for newspapers along the East Coast and in Columbus.