Swallowing batteries is incredibly common in children and can cause serious complications, however this robot could save the day.

In the United States a child swallows a battery once every three hours, according to an estimate from pediatricians. That translates to around 3,300 cases per year, writes Ben Guarino for The Washington Post.

Origami Robot Could Retrieve Swallowed Objects

Swallowing batteries can cause serious health issues

One such example is the case of 1-year-old Emmett Rauch, who ate a lithium battery. He later started vomiting blood and was given emergency surgery.

Doctors said that his throat looked like a firecracker had exploded in it, and it took years to reconstruct Emmett’s windpipe to allow him to breathe independently. Years of suffering were caused by a small battery, like those commonly found in hearing aids and TV clickers.

Button cells are the most commonly swallowed batteries. While deaths are rare, serious complications can occur when the battery gets stuck.

MIT scientists invent origami-inspired swallowable robot

However help may be at hand in the shape of a small robot developed by scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientists. These little devices could retrieve swallowed objects, including batteries.

The robot could also be used to patch up small wounds in the stomach after the patient swallows it. Researchers showed off the technology at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation, showing how the robot nestles inside a capsule of ice ready to be swallowed.

When the ice thaws inside the stomach, the robot unfurls like a piece of reverse origami. It is then controlled by human operators via an external magnetic field.

“For applications inside the body, we need a small, controllable, untethered robot system,” said Daniela Rus, an electrical engineer at MIT who helped create the origami robot, in a press release. “It’s really difficult to control and place a robot inside the body if the robot is attached to a tether.”

Edible pork casing used to build robot

One concern was the materials, with sharp plastic and material discounted in favor of edible substances that could be easily digested after use. “We spent a lot of time at Asian markets and the Chinatown market looking for materials,” MIT’s Shuguang Li said in the release. The device is actually made of stiff pork casing, like that which surrounds a hot dog.

This is not the first time that devices have been invented for swallowing. Veterinarians started feeding magnets to cows that had swallowed metal items around 1961, while the first human “gut cams” were approved by the Food and Drug Administration by the early 2000s.

There is ongoing research into robot pills that can move around the body. Some have legs, while others use magnets to drag the pill through the gut.

However two Italian biomedical engineers argued that magnetic fields can “lose power with distance, and with the irregular geometry of the intestine, sudden changes in field strength can cause the capsule to jump or can entirely sever magnetic control over the pill.”

However this latest device uses an external magnetic field. MIT researchers have so far used a synthetic rubber stomach filled with lemon juice and water during testing.

It might be a while until such a device is available for use in humans. Scientists are now going to add sensors to the robot and use animals for further testing.