The idea of a miniature explorer through the human body has been explored and parodied more times than one can count. Now, science has finally caught up with imagination and, although there is no mention of a shrink ray, a vessel is capable of taking a voyage through the human body (poop jokes aside). The robot, called ViRob, was created at the Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa and researchers are hoping that it will be able to conduct almost any procedure in a minimally invasive manner. Cue dramatic music now.
ViRob is pretty skinny for a robot, with a diameter of 1 millimeter (length is unspecified) and is capable of travelling up to 9 mm per second through blood vessels, the digestive tract, and the respiratory system. Travel is facilitated by external magnetic fields that doctors say will not cause harm to the body. For those who fear that ViRob is just a locomotive pill, guess again. It has tiny arms that are capable of grabbing onto walls within the body, allowing it to burrow from blood vessels into organs.
Within the organ, ViRob could eventually be used to administer medicine or perform delicate procedures with minimal invasion. Researchers are eventually hoping that they will be able to outfit the robot with a miniature camera, tongs, or blades. With those, ViRob will be able to go into the body and directly administer medicine to tumors, retrieve biopsy samples, or take a few pictures for curious doctors. Still curious? Take a look at the video below and don't be alarmed about the French reporter. All of the interviews are in English.
Although this robot is a neat prototype, don't expect to see ViRob or anything like it hit clinical use anytime soon. The biggest issue is size. Although a one-millimeter robot is tiny by most anybody’s standards, it still seems a bit big to be coursing through the body. If ViRob just so happens to come across a buildup of cholesterol in a heart-disease patient, it is highly possible that it could get stuck and cause a pre-mature heart attack.
Another pitfall of ViRob’s size is the crawling and burrowing mechanisms. It seems that a millimeter diameter hole in any organ would not be a pleasant experience and that it could possibly cause damage as the robot enters and exits various organs in routine checkups. The same could be said about the feet with which ViRob grabs onto the tissue. While it might not damage too many cells, a malfunctioning robot could easily wreak havoc inside of the body.
Here on Singularity Hub, we think that the idea of tiny robots swimming through our bodies has a bright future. However, the man-made travellers that may one day flow freely through the body will not be very similar to the mechanized metal robots that we now know and love. In fact, we probably won't even call them robots. It is more likely that they would take the form of nanoparticles and macrophages and take on the roles of cells to boost the immune system. They will not have batteries (nor does ViRob) or mechanized parts, but will float through the body and attach to different receptors by chemical means. It is more likely that this will become commonplace in hospitals of the future rather than robots like the ViRob and, though they might not be as exciting, they will get the job done.
Although the ViRob will probably not be the robot that invades the body and cures diseases, it is still a great concept that deserves mention. The research done in this project could be directly applied to future solutions that are more practical. What really matters is that the fantasies of fiction writers are now becoming everyday occurrences. The ViRob is not going to squirm through our intestines anytime soon, but the prospect of it is what drives our excitement.