Continuum robots are a part of the field of robotics, which can be used to advance applications related to navigation within small spaces without causing damage. This article will provide an overview of continuum robots and their beneficial applications.
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What Are Continuum Robots?
Examples of applications that would benefit from continuum robots include robotic surgery, hazardous operations such as bomb disposal, nuclear site actions, maintenance, and even transport.
Continuum bodies can be perceived to be one of nature’s most interesting phenomena, with examples of soft continuum bodies being found in octopuses, chameleon tongues, snakes, and elephant trunks. Naturally found, these soft continuum bodies carry out vital functions that have been a good study in soft robotics, as well as how stiffness control mechanisms can be developed for a similar range as ones found in nature.
Continuum robots include the development of soft robotics and can be described as a manipulator with continuously curving characteristics comparable to an octopus arm or elephant trunk; however, this type of robotics is created on a significantly smaller scale.
The first generation of continuum robots consisted of elephant trunk models with three segments, which were constructed during early research. Additionally, researchers at Clemson University known as Jones and Walker had developed two robots, including ‘OctArm’ and ‘Air-Octor’, that were constructed with one segment that could imitate a trunk. Many models have been built since the field of robotics advances to strengthen technology and abilities in this area continuously.
A new review paper headed by the scientists at Zhejiang University, China, has provided a summary of the development of this novel technology, published in the journal, Cyborg and Bionic Systems. This publication represents the most updated information about continuum robots and their applications for use, with prospects that may be solved.
Advantages of Using Continuum Robots
Emerging novel concepts in continuum robots consist of characteristics such as hyper-flexibility, with the electromechanical structures having infinite degrees of freedom. This highly desirable characteristic allows continuum robots to maneuver through complex curvilinear pathways.
Other advantages of continuum robot technologies include lower weight while sharing the same maximum output force with robotics with rigid links. This can enable continuum robotics to be mounted on the ceiling instead of the floor. The real-world benefit of this includes a higher level of safety when used in factories that retain human employees that work on the factory floor.
However, a drawback of this technology includes being non-linear and therefore being more challenging to control than discrete rigid-link technology, which can represent a significant barrier to being translated and used within industries.
Applications and Challenges of Continuum Robots
The versatility of continuum robots has enhanced their intrigue for many different applications, such as navigation, assembly, manufacturing, and even within the field of medicine, for example, in surgery.
Within manufacturing and assembly, continuum robots can potentially increase worker safety while also decreasing human error. Manufacturing errors and assembles can cause devastating consequences, which continuum robotics may aid in solving.
Additionally, the application of continuum robots within medicine may be monumental for areas such as surgery.
Some small-scale continuum robots with new actuation methods are being widely investigated in the field of interventional surgical treatment or endoscopy, however, the characterization of mechanical properties of them is still different problem.
Haojian Lu, Study Author, Professor, Zhejiang University
The development of magnetically soft continuum robots can achieve small diameters, such as up to a micron-scale – this can be revolutionary for the field of medicine and surgery due to its capability of handling targeted therapies. This would be useful in surgeries where precise and calculated navigation of small spaces is integral, such as therapies within cerebral vessels.
However, a disadvantage of magnetically soft continuum robots is their difficulty maintaining stability with the pressure of external forces. As a result, the minuscule rigid magnet tips that are used may fall off into the body during an operation.
The use of shape memory materials may be a safer and more reliable approach to developing continuum robots, as this self-deforming material can extend, bend, and provide torsion for the main stem. It can also achieve overall actuation on a small scale.
Applications relevant to this type of continuum robot could also include cardiovascular examination as well as medical attention relating to the nasopharyngeal. However, a drawback of this material can also include difficulty obtaining a simultaneous rapid response and precise positioning and having a poor load capacity and complex pipeline wiring.
The issue of control is a large obstacle to the progression of continuum robots, and research into this area of robotics to aid monumental applications for the advancement of many industries and fields is revolutionary.
“The research field of continuum robots has made great progress, but there are still some problems to be solved including the miniaturization, more powerful perception and the stable simulation engine,” stated the Study Author.
What Does the Future Look Like for Continuum Robots?
With the future of robotics providing hope for advancing technology, science, and society, research into continuum robots may be revolutionary.
Using continuum robots that can navigate small spaces with utmost accuracy may be beneficial in preventing human error and increasing the safety and reliability of technological instruments, from buildings, electronics to medical devices and surgery.
With further research to overcome challenges such as miniaturization and control, critical applications that have the capacity to increase the quality of life of populations may be a stepping-stone away.
References and Further Reading
Kolachalama S, and Lakshmanan S., (2020). Continuum Robots for Manipulation Applications: A Survey. Journal of Robotics. 2020;2020:1-19. doi.org/10.1155/2020/4187048
London I, and Campus S., (2022) Continuum robots | Research groups | Imperial College London. Imperial.ac.uk. https://www.imperial.ac.uk/morph-lab/research/continuum-robots/.
Song Z, Zhang W, Zhang W, and Paolo D., (2022) A Novel Biopsy Capsule Robot Based on High-Speed Cutting Tissue. Cyborg and Bionic Systems. 2022;2022:1-11. doi.org/10.34133/2022/9783517
Tiny biohybrid robots for intelligent drug delivery. EurekAlert. https://www.eurekalert.org/news-releases/963971.
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