Cell-Sized Robots for New Therapies

Cell-sized robots that can navigate through the body and interact with targeted tissues and organs have the potential to transform medicine. (Watch what cell-sized robots might be able to accomplish.)

A multidisciplinary team of Cornell physicists, chemical engineers, roboticists, and electrical engineers, led by Itai Cohen, College of Arts and Sciences, is creating a new class of autonomous, micrometer-scale robots. Equipped with onboard chemical sensors, photovoltaics, and electronic logic, the robots will move and change shape in response to chemical gradients and other external stimuli. With the ability to follow biochemical signals and encapsulate a soft tissue analogue, the robots could result in new treatments for disease and mitigation of harmful bacterial biofilms.

To make the robots, the team is developing an extremely thin, flat material that expands and contracts in places, causing it to bend and curve. Manufactured with the same scalable processes as computer chips, the lithographically fabricated material of panels and actuating hinges will transform into three-dimensional shapes for microscale locomotion. Mature fabrication technologies will equip the panels with chemical sensors and distributed control circuits that control hinge actuation. An external light source will power the robots, with specific colors of light triggering specific actions.

The robots’ ability to follow chemical cues and to wrap and polymerize around a chemical source will substantially expand the frontiers of soft micro-robotics.

Cornell Researchers

Funding Received

$2 Million spanning 4 years