Scientists unveil new remote-controlled 'pillbot' — a microrobot that you can swallow for early disease detection

TED speaker holds large robotic pill, and holds small robotic pill with a camera up to his mouth, with a screen showing his teeth

Internal medicine has advanced in leaps and bounds throughout the 19th and 20th century, as doctors implemented X-rays, endoscopes, ultrasounds, and MRIs into daily care. 

But checking the human body for cysts, tumors, and other predictors for a range of diseases is not an easy undertaking — and often involves multiple referrals, appointments, and health insurance hoops. 

Physician scientist Vivek Kumbhari, chairman of Gastroenterology at the Mayo Clinic, explained a common scenario that he encounters at his clinic. 

Vivek Kumbhari on stage giving a TED Talk
Alex Luebke and Vivek Kumbhari speak at SESSION 2 at TED2024: The Brave and the Brilliant, on Tuesday, April 16, 2024. Vancouver, BC, Canada. Photo: Gilberto Tadday / TED

“A patient, who’s generally in good health, comes to see me because they have abdominal pain, and I suspect it’s coming from the stomach. Now, I need to precisely understand what the problem is, but I can’t just pop my head in and take a look,” Kumbhari said in a TED Talk in Vancouver earlier this week. 

“Despite that patient sitting right in front of me, I have to ask them to go back home and come back to the hospital on another occasion, so I can put them to sleep with anesthesia, insert a long tube with a camera at the tip through the mouth and into the stomach,” Kumbhari continued. 

“This is an endoscopy, a relatively expensive and invasive procedure — and we’re on a mission to do better.” 

That same mission is one that engineer Alex Luebke has been undertaking for years. Luebke comes from a long background in astronautics and aeronautics, but in the last decade he’s turned his attention inward to the human body. 

Alex Luebke gives TED Talk on stage in front of red TED logo
Alex Luebke and Vivek Kumbhari speak at SESSION 2 at TED2024: The Brave and the Brilliant, on Tuesday, April 16, 2024. Vancouver, BC, Canada. Photo: Jason Redmond / TED

Like Kumbhari, Luebke imagines a future that forgoes anesthesia and expensive procedures, one where a patient could come in with an issue and be taken care of right then and there, and possibly be diagnosed in the same sitting. A future that’s possible with a microrobot named PillBot. 

“PillBot is a small wireless robot that is remotely controlled, and it swims around in three dimensions in a water-filled human stomach,” Luebke said in the same TED Talk, where they debuted the new invention. 

A presenter stands on stage during a TED talk, with a large screen behind him displaying an illustration and description of a wireless robot named PillBot designed to go inside the human body, with parts such as LEDs, a multi-layer flex circuit, and 3-axis thrusters labeled.
Alex Luebke and Vivek Kumbhari speak at SESSION 2 at TED2024: The Brave and the Brilliant, on Tuesday, April 16, 2024. Vancouver, BC, Canada. Photo: Jason Redmond / TED

The PillBot is outfitted with a data transceiver, a lithium battery, a camera that can capture a live video feed, three pump-jet thrusters that allow it to move, and miniscule LED lights — because of course, Luebke explains, “the inside of the human body is quite dark.” 

The first model of the PillBot was enormous, approaching a football in size. 

Over the course of five years, Luebke and his team worked on getting the microrobot smaller and smaller. Today’s model is no bigger than a multivitamin, but it’s still equipped with all the necessary circuitry and tools. 

A speaker at a TED talk gestures towards a large screen displaying a sequence of images that show the miniaturization of medical devices over 5 years, starting from a large capsule to progressively smaller ones.
Alex Luebke and Vivek Kumbhari speak at SESSION 2 at TED2024: The Brave and the Brilliant, on Tuesday, April 16, 2024. Vancouver, BC, Canada. Photo: Jason Redmond / TED

Kumbhari explained that the PillBot can be remotely operated by a game controller, tablet, or smartphone. He piloted the PillBot in a small aquarium tank to show how it operates, but then he and Luebke took the presentation one step further. 

“We developed PillBot to allow for direct visualization of internal organs, anywhere and any time,” Kumbhari teased. “This is our goal: be anywhere in the world, whether you’re at home sitting on your couch, visiting space, or right here on stage at TED.” 

Right on cue, Luebke swallowed PillBot with a smile, and downed it with a swig of water. 

Alex Luebke swallows PillBot on stage at TED
Alex Luebke and Vivek Kumbhari speak at SESSION 2 at TED2024: The Brave and the Brilliant, on Tuesday, April 16, 2024. Vancouver, BC, Canada. Photo: Gilberto Tadday / TED
Woman reacts to Alex Luebke swallowing PillBot on stage
Alex Luebke and Vivek Kumbhari speak at SESSION 2 at TED2024: The Brave and the Brilliant, on Tuesday, April 16, 2024. Vancouver, BC, Canada. Photo: Gilberto Tadday / TED

Within seconds, the microrobot entered Luebke’s stomach, and a live feed was streamed on stage as Kumbhari maneuvered it with his controller. 

“I’m carefully moving around, looking for changes in surface architecture that might represent an ulcer, or a cancer, or any other pathology,” Kumbhari explained. “And I’m able to get very similar views as I would if I used a conventional endoscope.” 

Vivek Kumbhari uses controller to control PillBot
Alex Luebke and Vivek Kumbhari speak at SESSION 2 at TED2024: The Brave and the Brilliant, on Tuesday, April 16, 2024. Vancouver, BC, Canada. Photo: Jason Redmond / TED

Kumbhari went on to say that the experience could be further enhanced if he were to use an augmented reality headset for 3D visualization or the assistance of artificial intelligence for early detection of abnormalities

“Fortunately for Alex, from this brief review, everything is looking normal here,” Kumbhari said. “Though if there were a problem, being able to show and discuss this with Alex in real time, elevates his understanding of himself.” 

As for extraction or retrieval after the procedure? No need. Kumbhari explained that PillBot would then take its “natural course” through and out of the body, likely without Luebke even knowing when it passes. 

A screen shows inside of a stomach, filmed on PillBot, on TED stage
Alex Luebke and Vivek Kumbhari speak at SESSION 2 at TED2024: The Brave and the Brilliant, on Tuesday, April 16, 2024. Vancouver, BC, Canada. Photo: Jason Redmond / TED

“This robot was designed for the stomach, but the entire body needs this capability,” Kumbhari said. “Parts of the body, such as the colon, the heart, and the brain should be made accessible through specialized robots that are just as easy to use.”

Luebke jumped in to build on Kumbhari’s statement, saying that PillBot was only the beginning. 

Future and emerging adaptations for PillBot include “lab-on-chip” capabilities that would allow doctors to analyze material from within the body, sensors to monitor disease regression, and the potential to cauterize incisions and inject medicine without invasive procedures. 

“I’ve dreamt of the day when I could explore the inside of the human body with robots,” Kumbhari said. “Recognizing that it would be an inflection point on my ability to help people live longer and healthier lives.” 

Article Details

April 17, 2024 10:24 AM
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