All those episodes of The Magic School Bus were not enough to prepare us for the future that scientists at MIT are crafting. In an effort to mitigate the harmful effects of swallowing batteries, the researchers developed small origami-style robots that can enter the stomach to guide unwanted objects out through the digestive system.
According to MIT News, more than 3500 people report swallowing coin cell batteries (like the ones found in watches and other small electronics) every year. While the objects are small enough to pass through the digestive system on their own, MIT News explains, and they usually do, there is the risk that the batteries could become attached to the esophagus or lining of the stomach and begin to burn the tissue.
This is where the researchers hope their development can help. The project—a collaboration between MIT, the University of Sheffield, and the Tokyo Institute of Technology—builds on previous research and developments in making folding robots that can crawl. The robot could act as an alternative to surgery, entering the body to dislodge the object, controlled by an external magnetic field.
According to Robohub, to convince MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory director Daniela Rus of the importance of the project, the study's first author, Shuhei Miyashita, used a battery and ham.
"Shuhei bought a piece of ham, and he put the battery on the ham," Rus said. "Within half an hour, the battery was fully submerged in the ham. So that made me realize that, yes, this is important. If you have a battery in your body, you really want it out as soon as possible."
The final design is similar. They researchers created a frozen ingestible capsule containing a robot that is sandwiched in dried pig intestine (used in sausage casings). Once inside the stomach, the outer layer of ice melts away and the robot unfolds, ready to swim and wiggle its way to its target. In the demo video (above), the robot can be seen propelling water and using a "stick-slip motion" to find and attach itself to the battery.
But the interesting technology is not reserved for retrieving batteries. "The robot can remove foreign objects, it can patch wounds, or it can deliver medicine at designated locations," said Rus.
Still, we can't stop thinking about the messy final step: retrieving the robot after its rescue mission through the digestive system.
Images via YouTube