Editorial Feature

Mechanical Snake – Innovative Surgical Technology

Robotic systems are becoming widespread for their application. Robotic devices have made a tremendous breakthrough in becoming substitutes for replacing missing limbs and researchers are now investing a their efforts in studying the application of robotic devices in surgical procedures, the delivery of rehabilitation to patients suffering from spinal cord injury and a great deal of effort in their use as guides to help educate children with learning disabilities. The scope of this article focuses on surgical robotics.

The introduction of surgical robots is starting to mature to a point where they can be appropriately used in surgical rooms. For example, new technology - including telesurgery, such as the RP-VITA Robot designed to deliver healthcare at the lowest cost via audio-visual telecommunication for remote consultations – is shaping the healthcare environment. As the field of computer-enhanced surgical procedures continues to develop so will the operating room with a series of imaging systems, microbot devices and robotic manipulators.

A recent press release has announced the design of a snake robot that could potentially be used to isolate tumours in the human body. The robot doesn’t work alone, a skilled surgeon helps guide the robot into intricate locations in the body where there may be a tumour. This could pave the way for a new method in surgical procedures that could eliminate the need to cut through the patient’s soft tissue to isolate the surgical point.

This particular robot has been designed by OC Robotics, specialists in the design and manufacture of snake-arm robots. The design and development of this device is in early trail stages and so the exact structural and functional principle is still to be refined. Some of the latest technology by OC Robotics for confined space is made of long flexible arms ideal for small openings.

Functional components to the Snake-arm Robot

The main components to the Snake-arm robot include:

  • An interface system that normally includes a PC with software to manipulate the Snake-arm and a controller to apply a multifunctional approach to the remote system.
  • The actuator is controlled using wires that feed electrical energy from the energy pack into the Snake-arm.
  • The main component to this robotic device that bridges the gap between the controller and the confined space is the Snake-arm. The structural components to this arm include links that give the arm the flexibility it requires to conduct automated operations. It is important that during surgical procedures the robot is light enough to limit any pressure on the confined space being operated on. During surgery, intricate confined spaces being operated on will be more sensitive to pressure and this also highlights the importance of creating medical robots that have minimum mass for maximum reach without compromising the positioning of the robot and surrounding tissue.
  • Speed of the OC Robotics Snake-arm tip is typically 1 m/s. The speed of any surgical robot will need to be matched to increased precision and repeatability.

The following video demonstrates the OC Robotics Snake-Arm, and should give you an idea of how this machine work and how this technology is now being refined for wider application in surgical procedures where it will be used to isolate potentially hard-to-reach spaces and remove tissue.

Applications

Technological advancements in snake robots are intricate and involve simulation techniques using sophisticated algorithms. As discussed, the application of snake robotics to assist surgical procedures is an exciting approach to novel healthcare. The concept of snake robots for keyhole surgery is becoming infectious among the application of sophisticated surgical operations.

The i-Snake surgical robot has been designed to offer a platform that can help diversify keyhole techniques making this a ground-braking investment into the field of surgical procedures. The main feature to the intuitive i-Snake robot is the imaging technology that provides the surgeon with increased flexibility to explore the confined surgical points within the human body. With a full range of articulated joints and motors along with sensors, this robot is a highly flexible sensing platform and allows for high precision and navigation.

The team behind this research are from the Hamlyn Centre at Imperial College London. This robotics system has been taken through trials by being tested to perform surgical sterilisation procedures. The key aim with this development is to provide sophisticated technology that eliminates the application of rigid instruments and to reform minimal invasive surgery.

In the following video, Professor Guang-Zhong Yang and Professor Lord Ara Darzi leading this innovative project offer an insight on their research in developing the i-Snake surgical robotic device and emphasise the vision of hopefully seeing technology being used in hospitals.

Video Courtesy of the Welcome Trust

The next video demonstrates the i-Snake modular articulated design.

Video Courtesy of the Hamlyn Centre

Benefits

Research on the advancement of surgical robots clearly demonstrates a marriage between imaging, sensory components, robots and surgery, but what advantages does this technology carry for future application? The application of  snake-like surgical robots does mean that a more detailed investigation of the alimentary tract and heart surgery becomes possible. By eliminating the use of rigid surgical instruments that could potentially harm surrounding tissue due to limited precision in confined space, there is the possibility of less invasive treatments and a faster recover time due to limited access trauma.

Some of the main challenges ahead seem to be focussed on join articulation, how to integrate an array of artificial sensor components and navigation methods into a surgical robotic system, and how this tool could be used to identify different tissues within the body.

Sources and Further Reading

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