Mini-robot for medical applications adapts shape to move

A new medical robot, inspired by pangolins
Sheila Zabeu -

June 30, 2023

Scientists at the Max Planck Institute in Stuttgart, Germany, have developed a magnetically controlled robot with a unique, flexible structure for medical applications based on the body of a pangolin, a mammal native to Asia and Africa that has a scaly body.

The researchers were inspired by the pangolin, with the ability to transform into a sphere instantly, to develop a minirobot made of rigid metallic components and also soft elements that, just like the animal, can adapt its shape to move, for example, helping to make selective release of substances and reduce bleeding. In addition, the robot also emits heat when necessary.

In a research paper published in Nature Communications June 2023, the study authors present a design no more than two centimeters long and consisting of two layers, a soft one made of a polymer studded with small magnetic particles and a rigid one made of metallic elements arranged in overlapping layers. Thus, the robot became soft and flexible to be used on the human body.

When exposed to low frequency magnetic fields, the robot curls up and moves back and forth. The metal elements are arranged like scales so as not to injure the surrounding tissues. Once coiled, the robot can transport medicine particles, for example. When exposed to high-frequency magnetic fields, the robot heats up to more than 70°C. Thermal energy can be used in medical procedures such as treating thrombosis, stopping bleeding and removing tumor tissue.

Untethered robots that can move freely, made of hard elements such as metal and that can also emit heat, are rare, according to scientists. Therefore, the pangolin minirobot is considered promising for modern medicine. In the video below, the researchers show how they can flexibly guide the robot through animal tissue and artificial organs.

X-ray of medical robotics

Over the past three years, more than 450,000 patents have been applied for and granted in the medical device sector, according to a GlobalData report specific to 3D Bioprinting Robotic Innovation. 3D bioprinting robots can create organs or other biomedical materials from basic cells.

Robotic innovations are at different stages of evolution, considering the typical cycle from idea emergence to accelerated adoption, before finally stabilizing and reaching maturity. The following is a chart in which different robotic technologies have been classified by GlobalData according to their stage of evolution:

GlobalData expects all segments of the medical robotics market to grow over the next decade, driven by demands for high-volume procedures. Healthcare organisations will increasingly invest in medical robots to compensate for staff shortages and improve the standard of care. New robot models are expected to offer more treatment possibilities, such as micro-robots to address difficult-to-treat diseases.

Innovation S-curve for Robotics in the Medical Devices industry

In terms of patents, GlobalData has identified growth in robotics aimed at the medical sector, rising from a level of 469 grants in 2016 to 638 in 2022. In 2023, this number continues to increase, with a 55% growth in May compared to April. Intuitive Surgical, a leader in robot assistants for minimally invasive surgical procedures, is the leading application holder. The top five robotic patent holders, according to GlobalData, are US-based device companies except UK-based CMR Surgical.

According to a report by Expert Market Research, the global medical robots market was valued at US$10.5 billion in 2021 and is expected to expand at a compound annual growth rate of 22.5% during 2023 and 2028, totaling US$36.6 billion by the end of the period. The surgical robots segment is expected to dominate the market, accounting for the largest market share by 2028.

The key drivers for the growth of the medical robots market is the increasing demand for minimally invasive surgeries, rising elderly population, and increased adoption of robotic systems in the healthcare sector. In this research, in particular, we talk about surgical robots, rehabilitation robots, non-invasive radiosurgery, and hospital and pharmacy automation, among others.