Photo of Renee Zhao

Artificial intelligence & robotics

Renee Zhao

Developing miniature robots that mimic more flexible movements.

Year Honored

Stanford University


For the past 30 years, robots have played an increasingly important role in medicine. Largely used now in surgical theaters, these programmable devices allow for greater precision, smaller incisions, and faster healing times. But because they consist primarily of mechanical arms connected to cameras and surgical implements, they can only perform certain procedures.

Renee Zhao, 33, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford University, wants to change that. Her lab has developed miniature robots that mimic more flexible movements. Inspired by the ancient art of origami, Zhao’s millimeter-scale robots have the strength and flexibility of an octopus arm or an inchworm.

“Although we have bones, most of the human body is actually based on soft systems. Biomedical devices need to be compatible with those systems,” says Zhao. “It made sense to find inspiration and replicate what is in nature, because nature is already optimized.”

Using a pattern first developed by Biruta Kresling, an architect who has investigated folding structures, Zhao created tiny cylindrical robots that can twist and buckle while maintaining their stability. Tiny grains of magnetic material embedded in the robot allow Zhao to pilot the device using magnetic fields.

The size and dexterity of these bots make them appealing tools for breaking up clots, delivering drugs to specific areas, or providing images of the body’s inner workings. Zhao’s lab is now experimenting with biodegradable materials, which would also allow the robots to break down safely in the body after completing their tasks.

“Going forward, we’re going to be working closely with doctors to identify real clinical needs,” says Zhao. “We don’t want to solve an artificial or imaginary problem. We want to use our expertise to help doctors tackle specific challenges.”