MIT Created an Ingestible Robot That Crawls Around the Stomach

It could be used to retrieve swallowed objects, patch wounds, and more.


Photo by Melanie Gonick/MIT

MIT, purveyor of all things insane, has one-upped even itself. Researchers at the school have developed an “ingestible origami robot” that could be used to remove swallowed objects, patch stomach wounds, and deliver medication.

Okay, then.

A statement from the school says it best: Researchers from MIT, the University of Sheffield, and the Tokyo Institute of Technology have created “a tiny origami robot that can unfold itself from a swallowed capsule and, steered by external magnetic fields, crawl across the stomach wall to remove a swallowed button battery or patch a wound.” It’s also worth noting that the prototype was encased in a type of pig intestine used to make sausage casings.

The idea of swallowing a robot that will eventually crawl around your insides sounds fairly awful, but it could actually be quite handy for medical care. The researchers noted, for example, that 3,500 button batteries—which can burn tissue and become embedded in the body—are swallowed each year in the U.S. alone. In experiments, the origami robot was able to remove those batteries in a test environment.

“It’s really exciting to see our small origami robots doing something with potential important applications to health care,” Daniela Rus, who worked on the project and leads MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), said in the statement. “For applications inside the body, we need a small, controllable, untethered robot system. It’s really difficult to control and place a robot inside the body if the robot is attached to a tether.”

The project builds upon past MIT research, but it’s still in its preliminary stages for now. Rus and her team have thus far only tested the robot in a man-made model of the cross section of the esophagus and the stomach, with water and lemon juice mimicking stomach acids. In other words, you’ll likely have to wait a while to have a robot crawl around your own stomach. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news.

Check out this video from MIT to learn more about the technology: