China invented a spray that turns objects into robots

When we think that everything that could be invented has been done, China always manages to surprise us. Researchers from Hong Kong and Shenzhen Universities invented a spray that is capable of transforming small inanimate objects into human-controlled robots. Their study was published in the American journal Science Robotics and there is already talk of an important breakthrough in the medical field, since this would be its area of application.

The name given to this “magical” spray is M-Skins, that is magnetic skin. In fact, it covers objects, creating a thin film that adheres perfectly to their surface, as if it were a second skin. The latter is made up of a series of magnetic elements that make the entire object reactive to external commands. In this way, the object in question comes to life and it can be moved at will, through the use of a magnetic field. In the video published by the journal Science Robotics along with the article, you can see pieces of thread, origami, paper scraps and tiny medical devices that, once coated with the substance contained in the spray, start to walk, crawl, swim and roll.

What gives life to the objects is a mixture of water, gluten, polyvinyl alcohol and iron powder. This mix of materials has magnetic properties and reacts with the surfaces with which it comes into contact, thus creating very small automata, or rather millirobots. 

The team of experts who created the M-Spray, had as its ultimate goal exactly to create millirobots that could move in “unstructured environments, operate in confined spaces, with a diverse range of objects” in order to then be used in biomedical field. Their tiny size make them perfect for moving even inside the human body. For example, they could be inserted into a patient’s veins to remove obstructions, or to bring drugs to specific points in the body that would otherwise not be easily accessible through traditional surgical techniques.

To demonstrate its possible application, researchers carried out a laboratory test on a rabbit. They introduced a magnetized capsule into the animal’s stomach and then controlled and piloted its path from the outside. They made it reach the specific desired point of the organ, where the capsule was then able to release the drug particles. 

Lead doctor of the research team, Shen Yajing, said, “Our idea is that by putting on this ‘magnetic coat’, we can turn any objects into a robot and control their locomotion. The M-spray we developed can stick on the targeted object and ‘activate’ the object when driven by a magnetic field”.

The film that is formed is so thin that it preserves the size, morphology and structure of the object. Once the desired operation is performed, the film can be easily removed and/or reprogrammed. By wetting the coating and using a strong magnetic field, the particles inside it can in fact be redistributed and realigned, thus changing the way of reacting to the commands of the object as well as its movements.

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