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Edible robots made from gelatin may soon get to work in your intestinal tract

Researchers from Switzerland made a robotic actuator that is fully digestible.

Edible actuator
Intelligent Systems Laboratory at Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland

Robots can conduct surgery, pacemakers can help regulate a person’s heartbeat, and now robots you eat may soon start crawling around inside your intestinal tract, delivering medicine or handling other duties.

Researchers from Intelligent Systems Laboratory at Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland shared new work this week on a tiny edible and digestible robotic actuator made of gelatin. The research was led by graduate student Jun Shintake.

Actuators are the components in machines that are responsible for movement. But unlike the typical metal joinery that’s powered by a motor, these edible gelatin actuators are filled with air or fluid or react to chemicals, which cause them to move.

Combining these actuators with other advancements in edible electronics — batteries that can safely pass through a digestive tract, or chips and cameras that are already on the market that can be ingested — could one day make for a fully edible robot, the researchers from EPFL told Recode.

These robots may be used to deliver medicines in the intestinal tract or move around to help provide stability where needed, said Dario Floreano, the professor who oversees the Intelligent Systems Laboratory.

The edible actuators that their team invented measure about three to five centimeters in length. Two of these actuators put together could create a gripper, Floreano said in an interview.

Gelatin makes sense for a material in an edible robotic part, Christopher Bettinger, a biomedical engineering and materials science professor at Carnegie Mellon, told Recode, because gelatin is already used safely as an outer layer in medicine capsules available over the counter.

“This soft, pneumatic approach is really cool, because when you think about your gastrointestinal tract and tissues, those also are kind of soft, squishy and compliant, and there’s a lot of gas,” said Bettinger, who leads a research group at CMU that invented an edible battery made out of melanin last year.

The edible gelatin actuator itself doesn’t have any electronics in it and is fully digestible, according to Floreano. This is different from other edible electronic components, like the battery from Carnegie Melon, which is ingestible, but eventually passes out of a person’s system.

Ingestible electronics that are already on the market include pills with ingestible sensors on them that can track patient compliance, as well as a camera that is small enough to be swallowed to record activity in a person’s digestive tract to help diagnosis issues, like bleeding, that scopes can’t detect.

“The wind in the sails that will take take anything [in edible electronics] forward is identifying the exact problem first and designing solutions to tackle that problem,” said Bettinger. “So maybe the pieces are there, but it’s kind of up to the private sector to synthesize them to actually make products.”

The researchers at EPFL say that they are also collaborating with the École hôtelière de Lausanne in Switzerland, widely considered to be one of the best hospitality schools in the world, to make different kinds of food substances that may be ingested and roboticized.

The gelatin-based actuator is still in its very early stages of development, says Floreano, who heads the lab from EPFL, but the team has been working on the project for about a year now.

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