Researchers from Swiss research institute EPFL imagine digestible robots being put to a number of uses, from exploring the body (before being disposed of in our guts) to "food transportation where the robot does not require additional payload because the robot is the food".
These ideas and more were outlined in a recent paper titled "Soft Pneumatic Gelatin Actuator for Edible Robotics" and first reported on by IEEE Spectrum.
The “soft pneumatic gelatin actuators” in question are the squishy-looking fingers you can see in the above images. Soft robots like these that you can also see in action in the video below, are not new. Supermarkets use them for handling fruit without bruising apples, for example. Rather than being made of plastic, these actuators are made from a combination of gelatin, glycerin and water, which means that these robots are both edible and biodegradable. These attributes make the robots even more exciting, meaning that they could do all sorts of interesting jobs. The robots can be sent off on missions in the wild then left to naturally decompose, or could be designed as "prey robots", intended to be eaten by wild animals before tracking their movements from the inside out. Because these robots are biocompatible, they could be deployed inside our own bodies, with drugs added to the gelatin mix so that it delivers medicine while our bodies digest the robots.
None of these functions are likely to come to fruition in the near future, but the researchers at EPFL’s Laboratory of Intelligent Systems are dreaming big. In the meantime, you can see how these robots handle apples in the video below: