Microrobots could revolutionize the future of healthcare. However, if you have seen how this technology has been used in popular culture—from killer nanobots in ‘No Time To Die’ to the advanced healing “nanogenes” of ‘Doctor Who’—this might be a hard pill to swallow.
But research in this nascent field is advancing and, if trials are successful, these microscopic robots could become the go-to medical device across a range of fields.
What are micro-robots?
While there is no official definition of a micro-robot, the term typically refers to robots smaller than one millimetre. A nanorobot, commonly referred to in popular fiction as a nanobot, nanomite, or nanomachine, refers to robots at the scale of a nanometre.
The use cases for a miniature machine capable of carrying out a complex series of actions automatically and repeatedly are of course infinite, though publicity for the technology has mostly focused on defence and healthcare.
How are micro-robots controlled?
GlobalData’s Patent Analytics database reveals there were over 60 patent applications for micro-robots with a primary application in healthcare between 2019 and 2022. Most applications refer to the method of controlling micro-robots within the human body. Controlling a micro-robot within a human body with extreme precision, from the outside of the body, and without a tether is one of the biggest challenges facing development, especially as micro-robots are too small to hold many machine components inside. Companies such as Bionaut Labs remotely control their micro-robots with magnetic propulsion, while research groups such as those at the University of Pennsylvania have used laser lights transmitted to silicon solar cells planted on the top of micro-robots.
What are their applications in healthcare?
Medical micro-robotic patents have been filed across sectors, including oncology, infectious diseases, general surgery, ophthalmology, and dentistry. Interesting use cases include the use of medical micro-robots to clear blood vessels and ureteral stones, treat aortic dissection, and perform endoscopies. In the future, use cases could even involve remote patient monitoring as micro-robots move throughout the body and transmit information back to healthcare practitioners.
Publicized research worldwide into medical micro-robots also reveals other use cases. For example, Bionaut Labs is focusing on treatments for neurological diseases using its micro-robots, which it has named “Bionauts”. Designed to move through fluid-filled spaces, the Bionauts can be directed to move, pierce tissue, and unload contained therapeutics, before being safely directed back out of the patient. Bionaut Labs is originally focusing on offering treatments for rare diseases, including the delivery of chemotherapy drugs directly into brain stem tumors (in partnership with Candel Therapeutics), and the piercing of cysts in the brains of those affected by Dandy-Walker Syndrome. Targeting rare diseases will allow the company to access accelerated regulatory pathways and begin early feasibility studies. It is likely that other early use cases in medical micro-robotics will similarly focus on rare diseases as a proof-of-concept.
Where and when can we expect medical micro-robots to first reach the market?
While the US is the largest medical robotic market according to GlobalData forecasts, and some of the leading companies in the field of micro-robotics are located there, the Asia-Pacific (APAC) region will likely be the larger home of micro-robotic innovation. According to GlobalData’s Patent Analytics database, China is the leading patent authority by application number for medical micro-robots, with assignees that include universities and research groups such as the Beijing University of Technology and Peking University School and Hospital of Stomatology. However, South Korea is ahead in terms of granted patents, with six granted between 2019 and 2020. The Robot Research Initiative (RRI), affiliated with Chonnam National University, accounts for half of these.
The medical micro-robotic market is still very nascent, and as evidenced by reports such as Microbot Medical’s annual 2021 report, the losses from research are heavy and could severely impact the growth of this market. Additionally, the current macroeconomic environment is likely to impact the funds that research groups and businesses have to invest in new technologies. However, the hopes that come with medical micro-robots are clear. If even a few can find success in clinical trials and prove the technology is capable of completing new medical procedures, or existing medical procedures at a much higher accuracy, investors will be more confident in its future.