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The latest trend on the robotic surgery menu: ingestible origami robots

So what’s the medical device du jour amid the currently hot industry trend for robotic surgery and transcatheter, minimally invasive surgical procedures? You guessed it: edible origami robots.

That’s right. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology along with folks from the University of Sheffield and the Tokyo Institute of Technology have come up with a miniature origami robot that retrieved a button battery from a synthetic stomach they devised after studying that of a pig, MIT News reports.

Their findings were presented this week at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation, and although similar to origami robots the group’s head–MIT’s Daniela Rus–has showcased before, this one, quite literally, has a new twist.

Past iterations of the device have used what its designers call a “stick-slip” motion whereby the robot sticks to a surface through friction when it makes a move, but then slips free when its body flexes to change its weight distribution.

The newest version, which had to be made up of a biocompatible material and be less stiff, gets about 20% of its forward motion by propelling itself through water–or simulated stomach acids in this case. So not only can it fit inside a capsule that can be swallowed and unfolds itself, it has fins! External magnetic fields then steer the device across the stomach wall to remove a swallowed button battery or patch a wound.

“It’s really exciting to see our small origami robots doing something with potential important applications to health care,” Russ, who runs MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, said. “For applications inside the body, we need a small, controllable, untethered robot system. It’s really difficult to control and place a robot inside the body if the robot is attached to a tether.”

About 3,500 button batteries are swallowed each year in the U.S. alone, typically by children. Although most are digested normally, if one comes in contact with the tissue of the esophagus or stomach it can create an electric current that produces hydroxide and burns the tissue. Try putting one on a piece of bacon and see what happens to the bacon a half hour later.

While that experiment might be a bit yucky, the technology is all part of the very hot field of robotic surgery that had long been dominated by Intuitive Surgical ($ISRG).

Activity in the niche has been heating up. Just last month Auris Surgical Robotics announced it planned to buy minimally invasive robotic surgery company Hansen Medical in a deal valued at about $80 million.

Last December Google parent Alphabet ($GOOG) and Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ) formed a robotic surgery joint venture dubbed Verb Surgical.