Biomedical breakthroughs

Chris Froud explores how micro-bots could lead to more biomedical breakthroughs

Robots are getting smaller but not at the rate that most people might think. Robotic systems come in a range of sizes, according to their use, but microscale robotic systems are currently coming to the fore and breaking ground in a range of biomedical applications.

Among the micro-bots causing a stir at the moment is a half-millimetre wide remote-controlled robot in the form of a crab. Despite it being smaller than a flea, research scientists at Northwestern University in the USA have big ideas for this micro-bot, which could be used to aid clinicians in clearing blocked arteries, stopping internal bleeding, or eradicating cancerous tumours. Although it may be too early to consider micro-bots a ‘trend’, there is growing demand for small-scale robots to assist surgeons with difficult or high-risk manoeuvres, such as accessing hard-to-reach areas of the human body.

Surgical robots are typically controlled by large pieces of computer hardware, which can take up valuable space in hospital wards or operating theatres. They can be expensive to run and maintain and rely on a significant power source. By contrast, the robotic crab is not powered by hardware, electricity, or hydraulics but instead its movements are achieved by virtue of the elastic characteristics of its body. Made from layers of shape-memory alloy, it is controlled through careful selection of the laser’s wavelength, which allows it to penetrate the skin to control the robot inside.

Northwestern University has a lot of experience in R&D projects of this type and most academic research teams understand the importance of filing a patent application at an early stage to protect an innovation’s route to market. However, it’s too early to say if a patent has been filed in this case, due to the 18-month delay in publishing patent applications. There are a number of aspects that the research team may have chosen to apply for patent protection - the robot itself, as well as the layered material used to create the robot on the basis that there are likely to more potential applications to follow. There is potential for further patent applications in the future as the robot is developed and refined for particular applications.

Another example of miniaturisation in robotics for biomedical application is an origami-inspired mini robot, created by research engineers at Harvard and Sony. About the size of a tennis ball, the robot is controlled using piezoelectric actuators, which are built into its structure. A more compact version of typical surgical robots, it offers more precise motion control. In this case, it may be possible to secure patent protection for the actuators, as well as the robot, in this case.

In this fast-growing area of research and development activity, innovators should consider their intellectual property strategy at the outset. Patents can help innovative companies to secure a stake in the marketplace as it grows but filing too early may not be such a good idea if there is still a lot of development work to do before the innovation is market ready. In some cases, it may be wise to keep the robotic innovation as a ‘trade secret’. Waiting to file does bring risks however, as another innovator could bring something similar to market first. To avoid this, it may be best to secure an initial filing as soon as possible and follow up with further filings as the technology develops. Through interviews and in-depth research, IP specialists can support research teams in deciding on the optimal patent strategy.

Although micro-bots such as the robotic crab still have some way to go before realising their full potential, they could bring benefits for other sectors too. With the push to replace humans in all kinds of high-risk situations, it is possible that we could see micro-bots being used in other demanding applications such as inspection and cleaning tasks in the nuclear industry, energy distribution and supporting defence sector operations in the future.

Chris Froud is a partner and patent attorney at European intellectual property firm Withers & Rogers

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