The movements of a tiny 3D-printed robot can be controlled by vibration, a large drone will look for signs of life on Saturn’s moon Titan, and researchers designed a “Trojan horse” drug delivery system that tricks tumors into letting in drugs that can kill them. Oh, the places you’ll go in this week’s 5 Coolest Things.
What is it? Engineers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have created tiny 3D-printed robots — at 2 millimeters long and 5 milligrams, they’re about the size of the world’s smallest ant — that move in response to vibration and “can cover four times their own length in a second despite the physical limitations of their small size.”
Why does it matter? Other kinds of micro-robots are often controlled by magnetic field — which works fine if you’re trying to move a swarm of them, but is less effective on the individual level. The researchers see many potential applications for their tiny vibration-controlled creations, which could be employed to “sense environmental changes, move materials — or perhaps one day repair injuries inside the human body.” Azadeh Ansari, an assistant professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, said, “We are working at the intersection of mechanics, electronics, biology and physics. It’s a very rich area and there’s a lot of room for multidisciplinary concepts.”
How does it work? The robots consist of a 3D-printed body fused to a piezoelectric actuator that generates vibrations — or the vibrations can come from an external source, such as ultrasound, sonar or acoustic speaker. The vibrations cause the legs to move. Ansari said, “As the micro-bristle-bots move up and down, the vertical motion is translated into a directional movement by optimizing the design of the legs, which look like bristles. The legs of the micro-robot are designed with specific angles that allow them to bend and move in one direction in resonant response to the vibration.” The research is described further in the Journal of Micromechanics and Microengineering.
What is it? Announced this summer and launching in 2026, the NASA craft Dragonfly will hopscotch around the surface of Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, to look for signs of “prebiotic chemical processes” that might lead to life. Dragonfly has eight rotors and moves like a large drone; the mission marks the first time NASA is sending a multi-rotor vehicle to perform scientific measurements on another planet.
Why does it matter? “Titan is an analog to the very early Earth, and can provide clues to how life may have arisen on our planet,” NASA said in a news release. Dragonfly will travel around the moon taking measurements from a variety of different environments, starting with dune fields similar to those in Namibia and ending its trip at an impact crater where it will investigate past evidence of water. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said, “Visiting this mysterious ocean world could revolutionize what we know about life in the universe.”
How does it work? The craft is scheduled to arrive in 2034; NASA is using data collected from an earlier Saturn mission, Cassini, to determine, weather-wise, when is a good time to land. Once it’s dropped off on Titan, Dragonfly will travel over 108 miles — more than twice the distance covered by all the Mars rovers combined. Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science, said, “It’s remarkable to think of this rotorcraft flying miles and miles across the organic sand dunes of Saturn’s largest moon, exploring the processes that shape this extraordinary environment. Dragonfly will visit a world filled with a wide variety of organic compounds, which are the building blocks of life and could teach us about the origin of life itself.”
What is it? This week, billionaire inventor Elon Musk reported on an ambitious project that’s neither a tunnel under LA nor a space taxi: Speaking at the California Academy of Sciences, Musk unveiled an interface that could enable seamless communication between computers and the human brain. He said the tech, developed by his company Neuralink, might be ready for human testing as early as next year.
Why does it matter? Brain-computer interfaces, or BCI, are a hot topic in scientific circles these days: Technology that can read brain activity and turn it into legible data could, for instance, allow people with quadriplegia to control a computer or a smartphone simply with their thoughts. Musk is thinking even bigger than that, according to Scientific American: “He seeks to enable humans to ‘merge’ with AI, giving people superhuman intelligence — an objective that is much more hype than an actual plan for new technology development.” You gotta start somewhere, though.
How does it work? Tested thus far in rats, the Neuralink system consists of 3,000 flexible electrodes implanted into the cortex by a surgical robot, and connected to a USB port outside the brain. Columbia University professor Ken Shepard told Scientific American that three elements of Musk’s system are key to advancing the field of BCI: flexible electrodes, miniaturized electronics and wireless communication — the third being a goal Musk’s team hasn’t quite gotten to yet. “They have made significant progress in the first two,” Shepard said. (Here’s a video of Musk’s talk.)
What is it? For folks trying to erase aging-related wrinkles, sun spots and other blemishes, two popular treatments are retinoic acid and laser rejuvenation. In a new study in Nature Communications, researchers from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine figured out for the first time that both of these methods work by promoting the release of double-stranded RNA, or dsRNA, which spurs skin regeneration.
Why does it matter? The finding might help scientists develop more effective methods for treating skin damage — for instance, more careful combinations of laser rejuvenation and retinoic-acid treatment — and it also might point toward new ways to treat things like burn scars. “After a burn, humans don’t regenerate structures like hair follicles and sweat glands that used to be there,” said Luis Garza, a Johns Hopkins associate professor of dermatology. “It’s possible in light of these new findings that double-stranded RNA may be able to improve the appearance of burn scars.”
How does it work? Garza and his team were inspired by mice, which can regenerate hair follicles at the site of wounds. Earlier work by Garza et al. tied this regeneration to dsRNA, so he and his colleagues decided to see if human bodies, too, release dsRNA at the site of a wound, including the minor physical trauma caused by laser-rejuvenation treatments, which are widely known to work, though dermatologists haven’t completely understood why. To confirm that it had something to do with dsRNA, the team collected and analyzed skin biopsies from 17 middle-aged patients undergoing laser treatment at Johns Hopkins. Garza said, “It’s not an accident that laser rejuvenation and retinoic acid have both been successful treatments for premature aging of the skin from sun damage and other forms of exposure. They’re actually working in the same molecular pathways and nobody knew that until now.”
What is it? Scientists at Northwestern University have designed a “Trojan horse” drug-delivery system that disguises itself as fat to get around cancer’s defense systems.
Why does it matter? Not only could the technique be more effective — it might be safer, too. In their tests, the Northwestern team found that they could use the Trojan horse to safely target tumors with a dose of the cancer drug paclitaxel that was 20 times bigger than usual. Project leader and Northwestern chemistry professor Nathan Gianneschi said, “Commonly used small-molecule drugs get into tumors — and other cells. They are toxic to tumors but also to humans. Hence, in general, these drugs have horrible side effects. Our goal is to increase the amount that gets into a tumor versus into other cells and tissues. That allows us to dose at much higher quantities without side effects, which kills the tumors faster.”
How does it work? According to the university, Gianneschi and colleagues “engineered a long-chain fatty acid with two binding sites — able to attach to drugs — on each end,” then hid the fat-drug combo inside human serum albumin, “which carries molecules, including fats, throughout the body.” Recognizing such devices as fats, hungry tumors let them in; that’s when the delivery system releases the cancer drug, which starts acting immediately. The paper is forthcoming in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.