Technology

This wearable bot could change the way we look at human biology

© SkinBot
Written by Phil Barker
SkinBot is a tiny robot that can navigate around your body, scanning your epidermis for potential illnesses. Join us as we delve under the skin to find out more.
A creation capable of sticking to human skin and crawling around our bodies sounds closer to the terrifying face-sucking organisms found in Alien and its sequels than something that could genuinely help humanity, but thankfully SkinBot doesn’t have its sights set on killing off mankind and taking over our planet.
Instead, the creators – a team of talented engineers from MIT – are looking at ways to detect and cure illnesses like cancer. The bot features interchangeable sensing modules including a skin-facing RGB camera that can take photographs of anomalies, and the robot’s ability to move over skin takes inspiration from existing technology and symbiotic relationships found in everyday life. We’ve been talking to Artem Dementyev, one of the driving forces behind SkinBot, to discover what the wearable robot is all about.
SkinBot is not the first robot that Dementyev has worked on, with the MIT research assistant also playing a key part in the development of Rovables – tiny robots capable of moving freely around clothing. With the inclusion of sensors, displays and other technology, Rovables showed a lot of potential, but the evolution into SkinBot is far more exciting.
“The idea of the SkinBot came from Rovables, as it kind of bothered me that Rovables couldn't move directly on the skin,” Dementyev explains. “I felt like we couldn't show a lot of cool applications. Also, I was surprised that no one made skin-moving robots; we make robots to climb mountains on Mars, but not our own hands.”
The desire to make robots capable of attaching to our skin stems from the natural world, says Dementyev. “For example, there are small fish that clean much bigger fish. This made us wonder why can’t we do the same with our wearable technology. Why can’t we have robots that live with us and help us? In my work, I try to push the boundaries of what our wearables can do, and how we think about them.
“In the Rovables project, we found that the robot didn't have direct access to the skin, which is important for sensing things directly on the body such as physiological signals. With the SkinBot, we wanted to investigate what can we do if the robot is attached directly to the skin.
“The long-term vision for the SkinBot is that everyone will be using such robots. The robots will help you to take care of and maintain your body and will be our trusted companions. This could be for medical purposes, such as early cancer detection, or body care, such as wrinkle removal.”
A photo of SkinBot in action
SkinBot could help to spot cancer before it gets serious
“I think the medical applications can have the most impact,” adds Dementyev, “but I'm currently invested in having some fun and exploring more arts and fashion applications. I've been working on a way the robot can make clothing directly on the body. It’s kind of like a 3D printer that walks around your body to make clothing directly. So you'd go to sleep and wake up with a shirt custom-made for you.”
Dementyev and his team, which consists of five full-time members, including project lead Joe Paradiso, physiological sensing expert Javier Hernandez and mechanical engineers Sean Follmer and Inrak Choi, along with visiting students, have been working on SkinBot since 2016.
“We had to spend about six months to understand how to make a robot that can attach and climb on the skin,” says Dementyev. “
Initially, we learned a lot about the technology from developing the Rovables robot. There are some other interesting robots. For example, the HeartLander was a robot that used suction to move on the surface of the heart. There's also ClothBot –a robot that moves on the fabric by pinching. In our literature search we didn't see any skin-climbing robots, however, so we had to develop a lot on our own.”
This included making prototypes that encompassed almost all the possible ways a robot could stick to human skin, including medical adhesives and hydrogels, but in the end the team settled on a technology that embraced suction.
“The robot attaches to the skin using suction cups,” says Dementyev. “It is the same principle as you see in Chinese cupping medicine, but we use smaller suction cups and lower pressure, so we don’t leave long-lasting marks on the skin. We found that suction was the most effective way to attach to the human skin since we could turn it on and off on demand. In fact, suction is also used by many living creatures, such as the octopus.”
At the moment, SkinBot is more about potential than real-world applications, but the team at MIT have plenty of big plans for the future.
“There are lots of improvements that need to be made to the technology before such robots can be deployed in real-world applications,” Dementyev concludes.
“We’d like to make the robot untethered, which means removing the umbilical cord. This is mostly limited by the current vacuum pump technology; there are no pumps that can fit our profile, so they would have to be custom-made or we could attempt to avoid the pump altogether and integrate suction into the suction cup by using novel materials including artificial muscles (shape memory alloys or electroactive polymers).
“There are other improvements such as greater localisation accuracy, size, and more robust locomotion. I believe that the vision of robots on the skin is still 5-10 years away before we can buy them in the store. But the way the technology is progressing, I am sure it will happen.”
We certainly hope so – the idea of microscopic bots that could detect the likes of cancer before it turns into something more serious could change the world as we know it, and we’re also more than on board with Dementyev’s dream of waking up to freshly tailored clothes.