A team of Australian researchers just unveiled a design for a teeny tiny robot that can motor to the site of a blocked artery. It would one-up the current state-of the art in minimally invasive surgery: So-called keyhole surgery, where a doctor cuts a small incision and inserts a catheter that has tools on the tip.
The problem with catheters is that they’re still too big for very small, blocked arteries, and can cause accidental punctures. But robot designed by the researchers at Monash University is just a quarter of a millimeter wide. It’s propelled by a flagella, just like a bacteria, which is powered by a piezoelectric motor. The technology is similar to that in a quartz wristwatch—when an electric current is applied, the motor vibrates, whipping the tail around:
The remaining hurdle is designing a small-enough powersource. But this isn’t a one-off gimcrack, or a thought experiment. Medical researchers are sprinting to find the best solutions for minimally invasive medicine—highly targeted devices and medicines that avoid lengthy recovery times and side effects that mark larger-scaled procedures. Philips in particular has generated a tiny, pill shaped device you can swallow, as well as “micro bubbles” loaded with medicine that can be induced to burst exactly where they’re needed.