How Robots, Octopuses Might Revolutionize Surgery
One part of the robotic arm would gently squeeze and move around organs, while the other would perform the operation via a miniature surgical tool-kit.
Inspired by the eight arms of an octopus, Italian researchers have designed a robotic arm that enables surgeons to access confined regions of the human body and carefully manipulate soft organs.
The developers, a team from Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies in Pisa, Italy, believe the device (watch the video below) could reduce the number of instruments used and incisions made during surgery. One part of the robotic arm would gently squeeze and move around organs, while the other would perform the operation via a miniature surgical tool-kit at the tip of the arm.
“The human body represents a highly challenging and non-structured environment, where the capabilities of the octopus can provide several advantages with respect to traditional surgical tools,” says Tommaso Ranzani, a professor at the Pontedera BioRobotics Institute and lead author of the study that appeared in the scientific journal Bioinspiration and Biomimetics (pdf).
“Generally, the octopus has no rigid structures and can thus adapt the shape of its body to its environment. Taking advantage of the lack of rigid skeletal support, the eight highly flexible and long arms can twist, change their length, or bend in any direction at any point along the arm.”
The current prototype is 14cm long and 3cm across and split into two sections. Running the length of each section are cylindrical chambers that can be pumped full of air to varying degrees, lengthening or bending the arm. Another chamber is packed with coffee grounds. When air is sucked out of this compartment, the granules jam together and the arm becomes more rigid.
The researchers performed a number of tests on the robotic device, showing that it could bend to angles of up to 255° and stretch to up to 62 percent of its initial length. The stiffening mechanism was able to provide stiffness increases from 60 percent up to 200 percent.
”Traditional surgical tasks often require the use of multiple specialized instruments such as graspers, retractors, vision systems and dissectors, to carry out a single procedure,” says Ranzani. ”We believe our device is the first step to creating an instrument that is able to perform all of these tasks, as well as reach remote areas of the body and safely support organs around the target site.”
According to Discovery News, this robotic arm was born out a Pentagon-funded project from about 10 years ago that tasked engineers with building an eight-armed artificial octopus that capable of squeezing, holding and grabbing objects with soft, flexible arms. For various reasons, however, the project never got off the ground.