Physicists at Cornell University have been working on building a small, amorphous robot. In fact, physicists Paul McEuen and Itai Cohen have already built what will be the “muscle” of the robot.
The team, led by researcher Marc Miskin, have built the exoskeleton of the robot which is capable of changing its shape rapidly due to changing conditions such as pH and temperature changes. This ability makes the robot ideal for “life” in an organism where conditions are subject to change since nature often does not follow set rules. For instance, if a person gets hypothermia, the cell will change in order to adapt to that cold environment whereas a robot that could not change in such a way would remain in its form thus it could not adapt to a new environment.
The robot has the potential to carry payloads in order to deliver them to targeted areas. These payloads could help treat diseases such as cancer when they could previously not have been treated. To use cancer as an example, the robot could deliver chemicals to tumors in order to kill those cells without killing surrounding healthy cells as current chemotherapy and radiation treatments do.
"You could put the computational power of the spaceship Voyager onto an object the size of a cell," Cohen described the robot. "Then, where do you go explore?"
Currently, computer scientists have been able to create a robot that is extremely small that packs an astounding amount of computational and processing power, but it cannot move or change shape. That is what makes this robot different from others. It is not only very small with a lot of power, but it is able to change shape depending upon its environment which makes it actually seem like an organic cell.
The robot moves using a type of motor known as a “bimorph.” The bimorph, made from graphene and glass primarily, is able to bend to relieve stress or to adapt to new thermal or chemical conditions as explained before. This bending allows one segment of the robot to extend more than other segments thus conforming to the space it must fit into. If the robot is in an artery that suddenly pinches inward, the robot must be able to squeeze through else the artery could clog which would lead such results as cardiac arrest.
The two materials (graphene and glass) can expand at different temperatures which allows the robot to change shape due to thermal stimuli. The robot can also change shape due to chemical stimuli due to the fact that generally ions will flow from the graphene to the glass which in turn will cause the glass material to expand.
"It's a neat trick," Miskin says, "because it's something you can do only with these nanoscale systems." Miskin essentially means that if the same principles were applied at a larger scale, the system would not work because the robot changes shape at the nanoscale or at a very small magnitude which is not evident to the human eye.
These robots have no commercial purpose for the time being, but, as mentioned before, the robot could be used to deliver drugs for diseases such as cancer which would be a major step in robotics as well as healthcare.