These snake-like robots could be used in surgery to save lives

The machines are not limited to one industry and have many useful applications.
Loukia Papadopoulos
Robotic Tentacle arm stock photo.

higyou/iStock

  • The robots can access difficult-to-reach places.
  • The researchers are working on semi-autonomous models.
  • The machines have a variety of applications, including the medical industry.

When it comes to robotics, it seems engineers take a lot of inspiration from snakes. In the past, we have brought you snake robots that fix pipelines on the ocean floor, snake-inspired machines that burrow through sand and soil, and snake-like robotics that could even be used in emergencies.

Slender, flexible, and extensible robots

Now, a team led by Jessica Burgner-Kahrs, the director of the Continuum Robotics Lab at the University of Toronto Mississauga, is building very slender, flexible, and extensible robots that could be used by doctors to save lives, according to a press release by the institution. They do this by accessing difficult-to-reach places.

“Consider a neurosurgeon who needs to remove a brain tumor. Using a traditional, rigid surgical tool, the surgeon has to reach the cancerous mass by following a straight path into the brain and risk poking through – and damaging – vital tissue,” say the researchers in the press statement.

“Burgner-Kahrs envisions a day when one of her snake-like robots, guided by a surgeon, would be able to take a winding path around the vital tissue but still reach the precise surgical site. Previously inoperable brain tumors might suddenly become operable.”

Snake-like robots could be used in surgery to save lives.
University of Toronto 

This is no small feat and could one day revolutionize the medical industry. The researchers are even working on semi-autonomous models that could one day guide themselves.

Of course, the surgeons would have to stir the robots in the right direction, but the machines could use sensors to avoid obstacles on their path. The development would make surgery easier and safer.

Three questions guide the researchers' work

To achieve this lofty goal, Burgner-Kahrs says she guides her work by aiming to answer the following three questions:

  • How can we control continuum robots, so they move even more precisely through constrained and tortuous environments?
  • How can we design a more intuitive interface between a human and a robot? Can we achieve a fully autonomous robot?
  • How can we use multiple continuum robots in tandem to complete a task collaboratively?

The researchers and her team are also experimenting with novel forms of snake robots that are even more dexterous and extensible. One recent model is inspired by origami, meaning it’s very light and can elongate up to 10 times further than other designs. This makes it ideal for search-and-rescue applications.

Clearly, snake robots can come in a variety of shapes and sizes with a wide range of uses. This means that their potential is not limited to one industry. Indeed, the development of these multipurpose machines may just transform our lives in the future, simplifying many complicated tasks.

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