Eat a robot? Scientists say, “Go for it”

While drone food delivery is just around the corner, a group of scientists are working to create robots that you can actually eat.

In 2021, researchers from Wageningen University in the Netherlands, the University of Bristol in the UK, and the Italian Institute of Technology launched the RoboFood project, which attracted EU funding amounting to $3.75 million over four years.

The project aims to create edible robots. As bizarre it might sound, the researchers are convinced, that this technology has a wide range of applications.

In a recently published research paper in the Nature Reviews Materials journal, the scientist describes its benefits for the healthcare sector, human nutrition, and environmental management.

For example, edible robot technology could enable precise drug delivery and in vivo health monitoring of the digestive system, deliver autonomously targeted nutrition in emergencies, reduce waste in farming, facilitate wild animal vaccination, and produce novel gastronomical experiences.

“Bringing robots and food together is a fascinating challenge. We are still figuring out which edible materials work similarly to non-edible ones,” said Dario Floreano, the lead author of a research article that considers how far we are from the reality of edible robots.

Robots from gelatin and batteries from beeswax

While these edible robots are still yet to come, and more research needs to be done, scientists have already made advancements in creating robots from food.

In 2017, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) scientists created a gripper with two fully edible actuators made from gelatin-glycerol, mimicking the mechanical properties of silicone elastomers.

edible robot
Source: RoboFood

In 2022, EPFL and Wageningen scientists designed a drone with wings made from puffed rice cakes glued together with gelatin. The wings were entirely edible, and the drone flew 10 meters per second, carrying 50% of its mass as an edible payload.

In 2023, IIT researchers developed an edible rechargeable battery with a riboflavin anode and a quercetin cathode, a natural pigment found in red onions, capers, and kale.

Activated charcoal increased conductivity, and nori seaweed prevented short circuits. The battery was packaged in beeswax and operated at 0.65 volts. Two of these batteries in a series powered an LED for about 10 minutes.

In 2024, scientists from the University of Bristol, IIT, and EPFL created the first edible strain sensor using a conductive ink made of activated carbon, Haribo gummy bears, and a water-ethanol mix. The ink, when sprayed on an edible substrate, was fully consumable.

Effect on the human body is unclear

In the paper, the researchers highlight several challenges in realizing edible robots. Current edible actuators and batteries have lower power, endurance, and reliability compared to non-edible versions.Further studies are needed to understand better how edible components interact with the digestive system. Miniaturization is also a challenge, as robots need to be small enough to be easily swallowed.