Tiny, shape-shifting robot could one day be used to perform surgery from inside the body

The mCLARI miniature shape-shifting robot on a leaf, next to a tiny spider on a nother leaf

Scientists created mCLARI (pictured) by using an origami-like fabrication method. (Image credit: Heiko Kabutz/University of Colorado)

Scientists have designed a tiny, shape-shifting "spider-bot" that can passively manipulate its body as it navigates its environment.

The arachnid-inspired robot is a precursor to a bot that could one day perform surgery or hunt through rubble for survivors in a disaster zone, its inventors say.

The robot, dubbed "mCLARI" is 0.8 inch (2 centimeters) long, weighs less than 0.03 ounces (0.97 grams) and can scurry at maximum speeds of 2.4 inches per second (6 cm per second), according to research published Oct. 6 to the preprint database arXiv

The miniature robot is the smaller, faster successor to CLARI, which was designed by the same team. It also passively changes its shape in multiple dimensions to fit through gaps.

"Because of the robot's small size and the ability to shape morph, we envision applications of this technology in the following four major domains of socioeconomic importance," study lead author Kaushik Jayaram, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of Colorado, told Live Science in an email. These include disaster response, high-value asset inspection, environmental monitoring and precision medicine.

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"In the long term, we envision such robots to be effective at navigating through human bodies and performing automated surgery such as clearing an artery clog or removing a tumor." Jayaram said.

With mCLARI, Jayaram's team is inching closer to creating robots that can navigate complex environments — just like the organic creatures they're inspired by.

In 2020, the team created a cockroach-inspired miniature robot called HAMR-JR.

For both the roach bot and the new spider-bot, the team used an origami-like fabrication method to etch microelectromechanical components onto a 2D sheet and then popped these out to create a 3D structure.

mCLARI robot has four leg modules that can move in two different dimensions. The robot can maneuver in tight spaces by switching between running forward and side-to-side and can adopt multiple gaits and scurrying speeds.

Its legs hinge to its body through passive joints, which enables mCLARI to alter its body shape based on the environment it encounters. For instance, its legs can stretch up to 50% in certain spaces.

As follow-up work, the scientists want to give mCLARI more power and sensing ability.

"We are also excited about understanding the effect of shape change on enhancing locomotion maneuverability," Jayaram said.

Keumars Afifi-Sabet
Channel Editor, Technology

Keumars is the technology editor at Live Science. He has written for a variety of publications including ITPro, The Week Digital, ComputerActive, The Independent, The Observer, Metro and TechRadar Pro. He has worked as a technology journalist for more than five years, having previously held the role of features editor with ITPro. He is an NCTJ-qualified journalist and has a degree in biomedical sciences from Queen Mary, University of London. He's also registered as a foundational chartered manager with the Chartered Management Institute (CMI), having qualified as a Level 3 Team leader with distinction in 2023.