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Robotic Drones Invade Innerspace

  • August 4, 2022

A tiny robot that can be swallowed will now actually look around and perform complex tasks inside the human body – remotely controlled by doctors

Remember Innerspace – the sci-fi movie produced by Steven Spielberg in 1987? The plot involved an astronaut who was miniaturized almost to the size of a virus along with his navigation capsule and injected inside the body of another person. There, he could move around and explore the anatomy – often noticing unusual physiological processes, which he had to normalize or exploit depending on the situation, to fulfill the experiment.

Innerspace was inspired by another, an older film titled Fantastic Voyage. That was a 1966 sci-fi adventure film about a submarine crew who are shrunk to microscopic size and inserted into the body of an injured scientist to repair damage to his brain.

Fantastic, but pure fiction, do you say? Well, scientists were trying to achieve similar feats for quite some time now, and finally, they seem to have succeeded. Although no human has been shrunk to miniature sizes yet, tiny robots can now actually look around and perform complex tasks inside the human body –remotely controlled by doctors who diagnose patients from the inside and even perform surgical tasks. And all this is possible through coordinated progress in robotics, telepresence, and Augmented Reality technologies.

Gulp it down!

Endiatx, a California-based start-up founded in 2019, has recently navigated a remote-controlled miniature robotic drone inside the human digestive track. The device can be swallowed by patients just like a pill and then piloted within the digestive tract.  Called the PillBot™, this first prototype is a tiny submarine the size of a multivitamin capsule. It can send back real-time videos to a connected computer or phone. Scientists at Endiatx have successfully moved the device around inside both cadavers and live humans.  

The company is planning to hold its first clinical trials later this year. It is anticipated to go smoothly, and an in-clinic version will soon follow. Eventually, the target is to introduce a version that patients can use at home – pushing telemedicine forward by a huge extent.

With further refinements, the future versions of the device would be able to take tissue samples and perform other surgical tasks within the body.  The ultimate plan of the company is to shrink their robotic drone down to the size of a grain of rice – which could allow it to navigate anywhere within the body, way beyond the digestive tract – just like it was in the films! 

Cheaper, faster, and more convenient

Endiatx CEO Torrey Smith was fascinated by Innerspaceas as a kid, and the idea has stuck ever since. Indeed, the start-up owes its existence to that very concept. Torrey himself volunteered to become the first person on earth to have a robotic drone navigated within his tummy.  

Since then, several Nditx researchers have swallowed the PillBot many times. The company is currently working with doctors at the Mayo Clinic and planning trials for FDA approval. Currently, the device is controlled through a standard Xbox gaming console, but the goal is to enable app-based control through any mobile phone. That would allow a disposable unit that can be swallowed at home after which the doctor can remotely review the camera feed either on a computer terminal or smartphone.

Image:The Pillbot™ robotic drone; Source:Endiatx

This could be a much cheaper and more convenient substitute for standard endoscopy procedures. Being free of any wires or tubes the PillBot has the full 3D mobility of an actual submarine. This means the device provides more flexible control than a traditional endoscope. It is shaped like a tiny submarine too – Armed with micromotors, propellers, a video camera, a battery, and a wireless link for sending images. The objective is to provide complete diagnostic capabilities that can be self-deployed at home, with telemedicine healthcare providers controlling the device and receiving diagnostic feedback remotely. 

The estimated manufacturing cost for a PillBot will be around $25. Even if it is sold for hundreds of dollars per unit, it would still save many thousands of dollars required for standard endoscopic procedures under sedation. And screenings would be much faster and easier – thus identifying potentially serious conditions earlier than traditional methods. 

Going by company projections, the PillBotwould be ready for public use by 2024.  

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