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SYFY WIRE robots

Amazing magnetic spray turns tiny inanimate objects into insect-scale robots

By Jeff Spry
milli hero

Does the idea of miniature, insect-scale robots swarming toward their intended duties inside your body make your skin crawl?

Medical researchers led by Dr. Shen Yajing from City University of Hong Kong (CityU) don't wish to alarm you but they've just devised a simple method of making millirobots which can be employed in various biomedical applications like targeted drug delivery and catheter navigation. 

Their project seems remarkably easy when considering the results of coating tiny objects with a glue-like, magnetic spray. As a result of the coated substance and driven by the corresponding magnetic field, these teensy objects obtain the ability to crawl, walk, creep, or roll along surfaces, even on a fantastic voyage into your organs! This special magnetic coating is completely biocompatible and can be dissolved into basic powders when necessary.

Working from facilities at the Department of Biomedical Engineering (BME) at CityU in a team-up with the Shenzhen Institutes of Advanced Technology (SIAT), and the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), the scientists' findings were recently published in the online scientific journal Science Robotics.

The research team's pioneering agglutinate magnetic "M-spray" magically transforms minuscule inanimate objects into lively 'bots that are capable of adapting to a wide variety of explorative purposes.

"Our idea is that by putting on this magnetic coat, we can turn any objects into a robot and control their locomotion, explained Dr. Shen. "The M-spray we developed can stick on the targeted object and activate it when driven by a magnetic field."

M-spray is a creative cocktail of polyvinyl alcohol (PVA), gluten, and iron particles that can adhere to the rough or smooth surfaces of any diminutive 1-D, 2-D, or 3-D item almost instantly with immediate stability. Its thin film formed on each test surface measures in at just 0.1 to 0.25 mm thick, thin enough to maintain the integrity, original size, and form of the intended objects.

Following a quick dousing of M-spray, researchers magnetized the objects with single or multiple magnetisation directions, which could direct how the object was manipulated via a magnetic field, then heated the object until the coating was dry and solid.

Therefore, when affected by a magnetic field, objects can be changed into industrious millirobots with an assortment of locomotion modes, such as bouncing, crawling, flipping, walking, and rolling on surfaces like glass, skin, paper, wood, and sand. Reprogramming the millirobot's movement mode is something that can be enacted on demand.


According to the study co-author Yang Xiong, the tiny robot's structure is normally fixed once it's constructed, something that hinders its usefulness when put in motion. But by wetting the solidified M-spray coating to create an adhesive similar to glue, then applying an intense magnetic field, the distribution and alignment of the coating's magnetic particles can be altered.

They demonstrated this flexibility of movement in experiments using a common medical catheter, and showed that the M-spray covered catheter could easily perform sharp or smooth turns with impact of blood/liquid flow on the device's motion ability or stability was negligible.

"Task-based reprogramming offers promising potential for catheter manipulation in the complex esophagus, vessel and urethra where navigation is always required," Dr. Yajing said concerning safety and side effects. "All the raw materials of M-spray, namely PVA, gluten and iron particles, are biocompatible. The disintegrated coating could be absorbed or excreted by the human body."