This week we saw a chimeric robot with a doglike body and a snakelike head break out of a Boston lab, learned about molecular machines that can be programmed to starve tumors of blood, and learned about a blood test that can help doctors detect concussion. All this progress makes us feel sanguine about science.
What is it? The engineering wizards at Boston Dynamics were at it again this week, releasing an eye-popping video of a nimble yellow robot called SpotMini. The chimeric machine, which isn’t exactly cute or small, has a doglike body and a snakelike head. The footage shows SpotMini use its reptilian jaws to open a heavy door, prop it open with a foot, let another four-legged mechanical creature sneak out and follow behind.
Why does it matter? Robotics is obviously quickly gaining strength. It was just last November that Boston Dynamics showed the world the latest version of Atlas, a 180-pound, 5-foot-9 humanoid robot that could do a backflip. The company, which spun out of MIT, says it is “combining the principles of dynamic control and balance with sophisticated mechanical designs, cutting-edge electronics, and software for perception, navigation, and intelligence.”
How does it work? The battery-powered robot is 0.84 meters tall, weighs 30 kilograms and can carry up to 14 kilograms. Boston Dynamics says it can run 90 minutes on a single charge. SpotMini has 17 joints and uses a 3D vision system to get around. “The sensor suite includes stereo cameras, depth cameras, an IMU, and position/force sensors in the limbs,” according to Boston Dynamics.
Top image credit: Boston Dynamics.
What is it? If SpotMini were a real dog, then Purdue University’s “microscale tumbling robot” could be a flea in its fur. But that doesn’t mean that the tiny robot — it measures 400 by 800 microns — can’t do great things, including navigating complex dry as well as wet surfaces and climbing slopes as steep as 60 degrees.
Why does it matter? The team reported that the robot, called μTUM — pronounced “microTUM” — could be used for targeted drug delivery inside the body, for example. “Robotics at the micro- and nano-scale represent one of the new frontiers in intelligent automation systems,” said David Cappelleri, an associate professor in Purdue University’s School of Mechanical Engineering. Postdoctoral research associate Maria Guix added that the μTUM’s “ability to climb is important because surfaces in the human body are complex. It’s bumpy, it’s sticky.”
How does it work? The school reported that the robots take advantage of electrostatic and van der Waals forces between molecules. (You learned about them in secondary school.) The Purdue team used a “continuously rotating magnetic field” to take advantage of the “stiction” caused by the forces and move the robots around “in an end-over-end or sideways tumbling motion.”
What is it? But the flea-sized μTUM isn’t even the tiniest robot we learned about this week. Researchers at Arizona State University and the National Center for Nanoscience and Technology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences have programmed nanorobots, which are 1,000 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair, to shrink tumors in mice by cutting off their blood supply.
Why does it matter? The team folded the nanorobots like origami from strands of DNA and unleashed them on models of breast cancer, melanoma, and ovarian and lung cancer growing in mice. “We have developed the first fully autonomous, DNA robotic system for a very precise drug design and targeted cancer therapy,” said Hao Yan, director of ASU’s Biodesign Institute’s Center for Molecular Design and Biomimetics. “Moreover, this technology is a strategy that can be used for many types of cancer, since all solid tumor-feeding blood vessels are essentially the same.” The technology also could be used in computing and electronics, ASU reported.
How does it work? The team used the nanorobots to starve tumors of blood. They built the robots from “a flat, rectangular DNA origami sheet, 90 nanometers by 60 nanometers in size,” ASU reported. Researchers used another molecule to program the robots so they would sniff out only tumors and deliver to their surface a payload of thrombin, a blood-clotting enzyme. “These nanorobots can be programmed to transport molecular payloads and cause on-site tumor blood supply blockages, which can lead to tissue death and shrink the tumor,” said Baoquan Ding, professor at the nanoscience center in Beijing.
What is it? Researchers at the University of Buffalo and another set of scientists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences are working on a device “capable of generating electricity from bending a finger and other simple movements.” Their prototype, which is 1.5 centimeters long and 1 centimeter wide, “delivered a maximum voltage of 124 volts, a maximum current of 10 microamps and a maximum power density of 0.22 milliwatts per square centimeter,” the university reported. “That’s not enough to quickly charge a smartphone, however it lit 48 red LED lights simultaneously.”
Why does it matter? Devices like this one could turn our bodies into flesh-and-blood power plants. “No one likes being tethered to a power outlet or lugging around a portable charger,” says lead author Qiaoqiang Gan, associate professor of electrical engineering in UB’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. “The human body is an abundant source of energy. We thought: ‘Why not harness it to produce our own power?’”
How does it work? The stretchy generator the team developed relies on a sandwich of two thin slivers of gold separated by a layer of a silicone-based polymer, the same stuff used in contact lenses and Silly Putty. Friction between the gold and the polymer “causes electrons to flow back and forth between the gold layers,” says another lead author, Yun Xu, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Semiconductors. “The more friction, the greater the amount of power is produced.”
Why does it matter? Mild traumatic brain injuries like concussions can be difficult to detect. Doctors typically examine patients on a neurological scale and order a computed tomography (CT) scan of the head to look for bleeding, lesions and other brain damage. “Availability of a blood test for concussion will help health care professionals determine the need for a CT scan in patients suspected of having [mild traumatic brain injury] and help prevent unnecessary neuroimaging and associated radiation exposure to patients,” the FDA wrote. In 2013, there were about 2.8 million emergency department visits, hospitalizations and deaths related to traumatic brain injuries, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
How does it work? The blood test looks for proteins that the brain releases into the bloodstream within 12 hours after head injury. “Levels of these blood proteins after [mild traumatic brain injury] concussion can help predict which patients may have intracranial lesions visible by CT scan and which won’t,” the FDA wrote. “Being able to predict if patients have a low probability of intracranial lesions can help health care professionals in their management of patients and the decision to perform a CT scan. Test results can be available within 3 to 4 hours.”