Doctors will guide them to deliver medicine and check the intestines for disease

There’s a wet, squishy tube 9 meters (30 feet) long that carries food from your mouth to your stomach and on through the gut. At times it will get folded over and over (to fit into your belly). This digestive tract is where your body slowly breaks down food, absorbing what it needs for energy and health. Anything not needed will exit out its end — and unceremoniously into your toilet — as waste.

As the entry portal for all food and water, its function and health is pivotal to life. But when symptoms suggest a problem, doctors can find it a tough place to explore.

Certain symptoms that might suggest disease, such as cancer, lurk within its enormous span. Maybe doctors will need to deliver a drug at some precise milepost along the path. They might even need to retrieve something small — such as a penny or battery swallowed by a young child.

Today, to see inside this tube of wet digesting food and wastes, doctors often turn to a tiny video camera. It’s shaped like a pill and about that size. After swallowed, it slides down the throat, into the stomach and on through the intestines. Eventually it will exit out the other end. A doctor can pore over the images it captures throughout its voyage.

But that camera only takes video. It can’t treat disease or retrieve a penny. That’s why doctors are now teaming up with engineers to build tiny robots. One day, these mechanical devices might deliver medicine on demand. Or they might cut out a tiny tissue sample, called a biopsy (BYE-op-see), in which doctors can check for signs of cancer.

Such devices offer to make medical procedures safer and more comfortable. They may also deliver new and better views of the inner you.

Crawling through the colon

Swallow a bite of pizza or spoonful of custard and the digestive tract takes over. By squeezing and releasing, the tube slowly pushes anything you ate or drank down and around the gut. Swallow a pill-like camera and the same thing happens. The body pushes it through the digestive tract. But these new robots aren’t just passive tools along for the ride. They may crawl or wiggle through the body. They can move backward or forward at the command of your doctor.

Once they’re done, these gut crawlers then leave the body just like a regular piece of waste.

David Zarrouk is a professor of mechanical engineering at Ben-Gurion University in Beer-Sheva, Israel. He and his team are building such a robot. It carries a motor to power its worm-like wiggling. Small electronic sensors inside it collect data on the robot’s precise position in the body. A smooth artificial skin lets the robot snake through the stomach and intestines without damaging them.

This worm-bot is known as SAW. That’s short for single-actuator wave robot. An actuator (ACK-shoo-ay-tor) is a part of a machine that makes the entire device move in response to some signal.

Zarrouk has always been interested in building small robots that move in unusual ways. He started working on the worm-like robot in 2015. SAW “will be very smooth and small enough to pass through the body,” he says. It should be able to deliver drugs. And, he notes, “In case it breaks down, it can continue on its own. The digestive system would take it out of the body.”

The Ben-Gurion team is using a 3-D printer to build the robot out of plastic. Eventually they plan to make the robot from special materials that will not irritate human tissue. “We try to use soft surfaces that are not going to cause damage,” Zarrouk explains, “because the intestines are very flexible.”

Zarrouk has already started testing SAW in the intestines of pigs. They were donated by a local cooperative farm, or kibbutz (Kih-BOOTZ). Engineers and computer scientists are now working to shrink the robot’s size, yet keep it powerful enough to perform its job. Zarrouk hopes to be ready to test the device in people sometime later this year. However, he adds, it won’t be ready for widespread use until long after that.

Origami for the gut

While the Israeli team is making robots that crawl through the gut, researchers in Boston, Mass., are at work on a tiny robot that will unfold at its worksite like a mini-umbrella. They believe their device offers the best approach to exploring the digestive system without causing problems or getting stuck.

“It is an origami-style robot,” explains Daniela Rus. She’s a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

“We can actually squish the robot into the shape and size of a pill,” she says.

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