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Slithering Medical Robots Could Snake Inside Your Body Some Day

The idea of a tiny, flexible robot crawling around inside your body might give you the creeps. But that might be preferable to having exploratory surgery, or being subjected to radiation from imaging gadgetry. So keep an open mind about this new breakthrough from researchers at Israel's Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. They've developed what they're calling the Single Actuator Wave-like Robot, or SAW, which produces a pure wave motion using a single motor. Think of the dance move called The Worm, then multiply that over and over and over again.

The researchers, led by senior mechanical engineering lecturer David Zarrouk, drew inspiration from the way that snakes move in nature, and the results were published in the journal Bioinspiration & Biomimetics. This is an example of biomimicry, in which technology uses nature for ideas.

The prototype SAW robot, which is made of a series of rigid, 3-D-printed plastic links attached to a metal helix rotated by a motor, looks to be about twice the size of a ballpoint pen. The wave movement created by its motor enables the automaton to crawl across different surfaces at speeds of up to 22.4 inches (57 centimeters) per second, climb and even crawl through a tunnel by touching the sides. There's also a waterproof version that can swim. If you haven't yet, check out the video above to see the robot in action.

Zarrouk says that the design could be scaled up to create large slithering robots that could probe pipelines or explore the insides of buildings to help bomb squads or rescuers in a crisis situation. But he also envisions miniaturized versions as little as a centimeter (about four-tenths of an inch) in length, which could "travel within the human body for medical purposes, such as imaging biopsies of the digestive system," he says in a press release.

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