Surgery, "robot snakes" to save lives

The shape of the snakes is by far the most promising for flexible robotics. Here are the latest developments and future prospects.

Gianluca Riccio

When it comes to robotics, it seems that engineers draw a lot of inspiration from nature. If you take a look at our tag "biomimetics”You will find the most disparate robots with more or less animal shapes, often just snakes, while repairing pipelines on the seabed, digging tunnels and much more.

Now from a press release of the Continuum Robotics Lab at the University of Toronto news that a team led by Jessica Burgner-Kahrs is building very slim, flexible and extensible robots that could be used by doctors to save lives, accessing points otherwise impossible for a surgeon.

Robot snakes to save lives

“Consider a neurosurgeon who needs to remove a brain tumor. With a traditional, rigid surgical instrument, the doctor must reach the cancerous mass by following a straight path into the brain and risk penetrating (and damaging) vital tissue,” the press release reads.

The team is also experimenting with new snake robots that are even more dexterous and stretchable. One of these is inspired by origami, is very light and can stretch up to 10 times more than other models. They can only improve further.

Burgner-Kahrs imagines the use scenarios in which one of her snake-like robots, guided by a surgeon, will be able to travel a tortuous stretch around the vital tissue while still reaching a precise point to operate. Result? Previously "impossible" brain tumors may suddenly become operable.

This is no small feat, on the contrary: these 'snakes' could revolutionize the entire medical industry.

Robot snakes

Three questions for the future of precision surgery

The idea that sophisticated flexible robots can help surgeons (even semi-autonomously, the researchers are already working on) is absolutely fantastic.

To achieve this, Burgner-Kahrs works by asking itself four specific questions:

  • How can we control robots to move them even more precisely through confined and tortuous environments?
  • Can we design a more intuitive interface between a human and a robot? 
  • Can we make fully autonomous snake robots?
  • How can we use multiple robots in teams to complete a collaborative task?

The future will all depend on the answers.

To report research, discoveries and inventions, contact the editorial team!

Alberto Robiati and Gianluca Riccio guide readers through scenarios of the future: the opportunities, risks and possibilities we have to create a possible tomorrow.