Researchers are creating a flexible robot that can maneuver into hard-to-reach places and give a sense of touch similar to a human hand.
A critical goal in modern surgery is to make procedures as safe and minimally invasive as possible, which often means using robotic tools. Bioengineer Nabil Simaan says a negative side effect of doing surgery with tiny entry points into the body is that the surgeon loses his or her sense of touch and pressure as well as having a very limited field of view.
“Historically a surgeon would open up the patient and he or she would have the best tools possible–human hands,” says Simaan, associate professor of mechanical engineering and otolaryngology at Vanderbilt University.
“What’s special about my snake-like robots is that they’re able to sense the environment,” says Simaan. “They’re able to sense a contact and they’re able to estimate where the contact is so they can readjust on their own, without the surgeon having to do it.”
For example, if the surgeon is manipulating the gripper, which controls the tool inside the patient’s body, and part of the mechanism hits a part of the body it shouldn’t, the flexible robot can figure out a way to reposition itself while keeping the surgical tool in place.
This not only prevents injury, it allows the surgeon to focus on the task at hand.
Not just a motion replicator
Simaan says his snake-like robots are unique because other devices that exist right now are essentially motion replicators.
“If I move my hand this way, the robot moves its hand similarly on the other side inside the patient,” says Simaan. “What we’re trying to do is go beyond the manipulation assistance into a process where the robot itself is helping the surgeon understand what the task is and is helping achieve the task.”
Simaan says by having the robot partner with the surgeon, it helps elevate the surgeon’s skills and ultimately the quality of the surgery.
The snake-like arms can move in all the directions a surgeon’s hand can move, with a “wrist” that rolls. They can also move in a very confined space and can perform dual arm tasks like knot-tying.
“It’s actually better to leave some of the task, for example of regulating the force on the tissue, to the robot controller than having the human worry about it,” says Simaan. “The surgeon is still controlling that level, but they don’t have to worry about actively controlling it every fraction of a second.”
Getting to the vocal cords
Simaan and other Vanderbilt researchers are experimenting with these robots in multiple procedures. One is vocal cord surgery—very common among singers.
Currently, singers who undergo vocal nodule surgery have to undergo full anesthesia in an operating room.
“To gain access from the mouth into the airway you would have to pull basically the neck of the patient as straight as possible. You have to insert a tube through the mouth that generally butts against the teeth and helps keep the jaw open, then push the tongue out of the way,” says Simaan.
The current procedure can sometimes cause injury. Simaan says his flexible robot would go through the nose, bypassing a gag reflex in the throat, turning a major surgery with full anesthesia into a more simplified out-patient procedure.
“We can actually take something that’s now expensive in the way we’re doing surgery and we can maybe, with the help of new technology, simplify it, reduce trauma to the patient, and at the same time reduce health care costs,” says Simaan.
Source: Vanderbilt University