Flexible endoscopes are designed to climb into the most inaccessible places of the human body. Not for curiosity sake – but for the benefit of the patient. But that neither saw the surgeon, using an endoscope, to extract this something or cut off with the help of the same endoscope, he can not. Therefore, you have to go on the other side, both literally and figuratively, climbing into the human body through the incisions on his body.
A group of scientists from Harvard decided to combine the endoscope with a robotic arm in order to be able to conduct operations directly on the spot, if I may say so. The manipulator has several modes of freedom, as well as the ability to remove certain objects or tissues. The manipulator lurks in the endoscope, while it goes to the goal. And once the right place is reached, the role of the robot becomes.
Illustration for the description of the manipulator concept and the photo of the robot itself. On the right, the manipulator performs an operation directly in the gastrointestinal tract. This is only a "field trial", but still looks impressive
Generally speaking, soft robots find their application in many branches of science, technology, medicine. The peculiarities of their design are such that a physician (after all, it is now a matter of physicians) can use them with a high degree of efficiency within the human body. True, the capabilities of robots are limited.
"At the millimeter level, soft devices really become soft, so that they can not damage any tissue, but they can not conduct operations with this tissue. This limits the scope of application of soft microsystems for medical work. The question is whether we will be able to create soft robots that will be able to develop sufficient efforts without compromising security, "says Tomazzo Ranzani, one of the project developers.
The team managed to create a working model of the manipulator, using a rather strong and resilient "skeleton", surrounded by soft materials. Scientists say that when creating their robots they were guided by the principles of creating origami – paper figures. As mentioned above, the manipulator can reach the target, there take a completely different form, pushing, actually, the manipulator. After this, the surgeon can carry out the operations he needs.
Scientists decided to use actuators that work on water to bring the whole system into motion. They are combined with the strong components of the skeleton with the help of chemical bonds, so that additional glue fasteners (or other types of fasteners) are not needed. There is a manipulator and a sucker in the list of tools that works on the same principle as suckers in cephalopods. The test operation was conducted in an artificial esophagus using pig tissues. The experiment went well, the manipulator, without damaging the delicate tissue, performed the operation, everything was done in the best possible way.
The latest version of the manipulator was able to conduct operations with miniature objects, the size of which does not exceed several millimeters. In addition to other elements, the robotic arm is equipped with a feedback sensor so that the surgeon, by performing an operation or examination of the patient, could get an idea of the necessary force to perform any procedure. And this can be one of the conditions for a successful operation.
In the future, experts plan to conduct the operation in real conditions, but, most likely, not on a person, but on an animal. "Our technology allows us to develop soft robots of small size that are needed in medicine."
Soft robots are needed not only in medicine, but also in production. Relatively recently, scientists from the University of Science and Technology of China showed a soft pneumatic manipulator, which looks like a caterpillar. By the way, this system was also developed jointly with scientists from Harvard.
A robot of this type can capture and carry various objects, even heavy ones, follow the pointer and perform other tasks. In the future, the Chinese plan to train their robot not only to seize, but also to use tools, transferring them to a certain distance.