Swallow a slug-bot to catch a …

by Paul Curzon, Queen Mary University of London

Imagine swallowing a slug (hint not only a yucky thought but also not a good idea as it could kill you)…now imagine swallowing a slug-bot … also yucky but in the future it might save your life.

When people accidentally swallow solid objects that won’t pass through their digestive system, or are toxic, it can be a big problem. Once an object passes beyond your stomach it becomes hard to get at.

That is where the slug shaped robot comes in. The idea of scientists at the Chinese University of Hong Kong is that a robot like a slug could crawl down your throat to retrieve whatever you had swallowed.

If you think of robots as solid, hard things then that would be the last thing you might want to swallow (aside from an actual slug), and certainly not to catch the previous solid thing you swallowed. You may be right. However, that is where the soft slug-shaped robot comes in.

It is easy to make or buy slime-like “silly” putty. Add iron filings to slime putty and you can make it stretch and sway and even move around with magnets yourself. You can buy such magnetic slime at science museums…it is fun to play with though you definitely shouldn’t swallow it.

The scientists have taken that general idea though and using special materials created a similar highly controllable bot that can be moved around using a magnet-based control system. It is made of a special material that is magnetic and slime-like but coated in silicon dioxide to stop it being poisonous.

They have shown that they can control it to squeeze through narrow gaps and encircle small objects, carrying them away with it…essentially what would be needed to recover objects that have been swallowed.

It needs a lot more work to make sure it is safe to really be swallowed. Also to be a real autonomous robot it would need to have sensors included somehow, and be connected to some sort of intelligent system to automatically control its behaviour. However, with more research that all may become possible.

So in the future if you don’t fancy swallowing a slug-bot, you’d better be far more careful about what else you swallow first. Of course, if it turns out slug like robots can break down, so get stuck themselves, you may then be in a position of needing to swallow a bird-bot to catch the slug-bot. How absurd …

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The cs4fn blog is funded by EPSRC, through grant EP/W033615/1.

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