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Robots to Eat? Edible Technology May Be Just Around the Corner

— June 12, 2024

Scientists are looking at creating edible robots from biomolecule-derived materials.

In a groundbreaking development, researchers have revealed the potential of edible robots, a novel concept that could revolutionize both the food and medical industries. A recent review published in Nature Reviews Materials highlights significant progress in the field of edible materials and their application in creating robotic foods and edible robots.

This review draws on over 150 publications, exploring how these innovative materials can serve as components for robots, including energy sources, bodies, actuators, computational resources, and sensors.

The concept of edible robots might sound like science fiction, but it is fast becoming a reality. Imagine a world where your pizza is not only delivered by a drone but where the drone itself can be consumed as dessert. This futuristic scenario could soon be possible, thanks to the overlapping material properties and functionalities between food processing and robotic design.

Researchers are pushing the boundaries by developing sustainable, edible robots that are degradable, digestible, and capable of providing nutritional or medicinal benefits. These devices hold immense promise for healthcare applications, such as delivering emergency nutrition, monitoring organ health, and administering precision drugs, all while being environmentally friendly.

The review details how biomolecule-derived materials are being used to create edible robot components. For instance, cellulose and chitosan can form the body materials, while hydrogels, gelatin, and starch can act as actuators. Sensors can be made from materials like cellulose-enriched rice paper for humidity sensing and pectin-based films for temperature sensing. Energy can be sourced from activated carbon pellets.

Edible Robots: A Game-Changer for Food & Medicine?
Photo by LJ from Pexels

Despite the exciting prospects, edible robotics faces significant challenges. One of the primary hurdles is computation—the ability of robots to process sensory data and perform actions. Traditional computational devices use semiconductor materials, but integrating biomolecules such as carotenoids, food dyes, and fungi-derived xylindein into edible robots has proven difficult due to performance and stability issues.

Another critical challenge is ensuring the safety of edible robots. Although the materials used are generally digestible, the lack of prototype robot foods has hindered clinical trials to verify their safety. This raises concerns about potential adverse effects from the interaction of various biomolecules.

Moreover, miniaturization and quality control are complex issues, especially for ‘smart’ edible robots designed for medical purposes. These robots must perform multiple functions seamlessly, and the failure of any single component could have serious implications.

The review emphasizes the potential of biologically derived materials in edible robotics from a designer’s perspective. These materials could address nutritional, gastronomic, environmental, medical, and ecological challenges, representing a significant advancement in materials science and robotics.

However, substantial research is still needed to understand the impacts of manufacturing processes on component integrity and safety, integrate computation into ‘smart’ edible robots, and clinically validate their safety for human and animal consumption.

Despite these hurdles, the potential of edible robotics to transform the medical, environmental, and nutritional fields is immense. Once the scientific, psychological, ethical, and technological questions are addressed, the future where you can eat your pizza-delivery drone might not be far off.

Edible robots promise a new frontier in technological innovation, offering exciting possibilities for sustainable and functional advancements in various industries.


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