Tiny Robot Can Roll on Land and Dance on Water—and One Day It Might Swim Through Your Body

The tiny robot pictured with a coin to scale. Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems

Engineers have created a tiny worm-like robot that can walk, roll and jump. The soft little worm can even skid along the surface of water. Researchers hope it may one day deliver targeted drugs around the human body.

The team was inspired by small, soft-bodied animals like caterpillars, larvae, roundworms and jellyfish. These creatures navigate complex surfaces—wet and dry, rough and smooth—with ease. Unlike a caterpillar, the robot doesn't have any legs. Instead its body undulates to move like a worm.

Robot navigates complex terrains

Similar small-scale robots often have great difficulty tackling varied terrain, the researchers write in the study, published online in Nature. But this robot (as the video above shows) takes variety in stride. It can swim underwater and even dart across the curved surface of liquid.

On solid surface the robot can walk, roll and jump. It can even wriggle through narrow spaces like pipes and carry objects by curling itself around them and rolling.

"It can navigate across solid, partially or fully water-filled terrains," study author Metin Sitti of the Max Planck Institute For Intelligent Systems in Stuttgart, Germany, told Newsweek. "Such solid terrains can be fully rigid or soft."

The soft robot is made of a rubber sheet embedded with magnetic particles. By altering the local magnetic field with electromagnetic coils, the robot can be controlled remotely. This warps its body and allows them to steer its movement.

Tiny soft robot could deliver drugs

One of the most promising applications for this robot is in medicine. Sometimes, parts of our body in need of treatment cannot be easily accessed. The tiny robot travel through the narrow channels and slippery surfaces throughout the human anatomy to deliver drugs to these hard-to-reach areas.

The implications of such a transport system are significant. "Drugs can be targeted to a specific location inside our body and delivered in more controlled doses, which could make the drug delivery more efficient and minimize the drug side effects," said Sitti. And because the robots are so small and soft, "they can't damage any tissue they are interacting with."

First, though, the team will need to make their robot even smaller to swim safely around the human body. They plan to shrink it to less than one millimeter in the future.