Swallowing this pill-shaped sensor could help you avoid invasive procedures

Ingestible robotics has been a fascinating and growing field for the last several years. We’ve already seen a handful of startups working to commercialize a technology that could allow for internal monitoring, medicine delivery and more, without the need for invasive procedure.

This new project from a joint team at Caltech and MIT highlights a slightly more basic approach to the category, cramming sensors into a pill-shaped ingestible module full of sensors. The system relies on electromagnetic fields, using a coil operated outside of the body to detect the mechanism’s progression through the GI tract. Effectively the external system is able to determine the pill’s location based on the strength of the electromagnetic read relative to its position.

The researchers have begun testing the system in models of large, non-human animals. They note that they were able to accurately determine the systems position within 5-10 millimeters.

“Using an external reference sensor helps to account for the problem that every time an animal or a human is beside the coils, there is a likelihood that they will not be in exactly the same position as they were the previous time,” says coauthor, Khalil Ramadi. “In the absence of having X-rays as your ground truth, it’s difficult to map out exactly where this pill is, unless you have a consistent reference that is always in the same location.”

Early applications for the technology include the ability to spot things like constipation, gastroesophageal reflux disease and gastroparesis early on. The idea here is offering a system that can be utilized at home, without having to go into the doctor’s office or hospital.

“The ability to characterize motility without the need for radiation, or more invasive placement of devices, I think will lower the barrier for people to be evaluated,” says MIT associate professor, Giovanni Traverso.”

There’s no specific timeline for the system. Next steps involve testing it in animals and then, ideally, clinical trials with humans, before partnering with manufacturers to bring it to market.