Magnetic Cilia Carpets with Programmable Metachronal Waves

Published Nature Communications, 2020


In this project, we developed a highly customizable soft robotic system for cilia research. Unlike existing artificial cilia, we provide a simple method to fabricate hundreds of customized magnetic cilia with programmable metachronal waves. This level of system integration and complexity was only accessible with computer simulations before. To prove the capability of this soft robotic platform, we experimentally confirm two major numerical findings of fluidic transport on cilia carpet (Osterman et. al., PNAS, 2011; Elgeti et. al., PNAS, 2013), for the first time. Furthermore, we show the metachronal waves can propel a soft robot inspired by giant African millipede. We believe this robotic platform provides a powerful tool to spark new discoveries in fundamental cilia research, as well as inspiring new soft robotic designs for biomedical applications.


  • 2021-03-12: Our paper is in the 2020 Top 50 Physics Articles collection from Nature Communications. This collection gathers the most downloaded physics articles of the journal in 2020! More info here.


Metachronal waves commonly exist in natural cilia carpets. These emergent phenomena, which originate from phase differences between neighbouring self-beating cilia, are essential for biological transport processes including locomotion, liquid pumping, feeding, and cell delivery. However, studies of such complex active systems are limited, particularly from the experimental side. Here we report magnetically actuated, soft, artificial cilia carpets. By stretching and folding onto curved templates, programmable magnetization patterns can be encoded into artificial cilia carpets, which exhibit metachronal waves in dynamic magnetic fields. We have tested both the transport capabilities in a fluid environment and the locomotion capabilities on a solid surface. This robotic system provides a highly customizable experimental platform that not only assists in understanding fundamental rules of natural cilia carpets, but also paves a path to cilia-inspired soft robots for future biomedical applications.


  title={Magnetic cilia carpets with programmable metachronal waves},
  author={Gu, Hongri and Boehler, Quentin and Cui, Haoyang and Secchi, Eleonora and Savorana, Giovanni and De Marco, Carmela and Gervasoni, Simone and Peyron, Quentin and Huang, Tian-Yun and Pane, Salvador and Hirt, Ann M. and Ahmed, Daniel, and Nelson, Bradley J.},
  journal={Nature communications},
  publisher={Nature Publishing Group}

Media coverage

The paper had been covered by the following media


How would feel about letting a robotic millipede loose in your intestines, free to explore your insides? Slightly reluctant perhaps? That is one of the proposed applications of a new kind of robot that mimics both the way a millipede walks and the way the human body uses tiny hairs, called cilia, to moves particles around inside us.

Video available here.

Inside Edition, CBS

A team in Switzerland has developed a robot that moves just like a millipede. The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology recently unveiled its so-called ‘soft robot,’ which was inspired by millipedes. PhD student Richard Gu said, “This soft robot can actually generate a wave between the legs and actually propel to move forward using the same mechanism as a millipede walking.” He added that the technology may one day be used to deliver medical treatment from within people’s bodies.

South China Morning Post

Would you let this ‘millipede’ in your body?

ETH News

ETH Zurich engineers have created a magnetically controllable cilia carpet that can move like a millipede. Watch the following video.

ETH 2020 Highlight

An extraordinary year is drawing to a close. ETH News takes a look back at the highlights that emerged amidst difficult and unsettling times, at ingenious ideas, fascinating science and solidarity in action during – and despite – the coronavirus pandemic.