Posted in | Machining Robotics

New Flexible, Snake-Like Robot can Save Critically Endangered Northern White Rhino

The northern white rhino is said to be a critically endangered animal, but now this creature may have more chance in view of a recent collaboration between San Diego Zoo Global and the University of California San Diego.

Barbara Durrant (right), director of reproductive sciences at San Diego Zoo Global, performs an ultrasound on a southern white rhino. (Image credit: San Diego Zoo Global)

Only two northern white rhinos are left on earth and both of them are female. Therefore, researchers are racing against time to save these species from the brink of extinction. The dramatic decline of the northern white rhinos is attributed to years of habitat loss and poaching. Now, hope for their survival rests on the ability of researchers to come up with novel approaches for repopulating these species.

In this regard, a snakelike and flexible robot can possibly make it easier for zoologists to carry out embryo transfer and artificial insemination on rhinos. That the kind of tool that UC San Diego roboticists and San Diego Zoo Global scientists have collaborated to develop. At present, the team is looking for crowdfunding to aid in designing and constructing the robot.

It’s essentially a long, thin catheter that can be steered through a rhino’s cervix to deliver a specimen to the uterus.

Michael Yip, Professor, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, UC San Diego.

Initially, this may sound quite simple but navigating the reproductive anatomy of a female rhino is extremely difficult. “The rhino cervix is very large and tortuous,” stated Barbara Durrant, who serves as Henshaw Endowed Director of Reproductive Sciences at San Diego Zoo Global.

The reproductive anatomy has a range of twists and turns similar to switchbacks on a sheer mountain road. This continues for 8 to 12”. In addition to that, a relatively long vagina and the uterine body that leads up to the uterine horn, totaling up to 27” worth of rhino anatomy to navigate prior to depositing an embryo or semen.

In order to navigate their way through this long labyrinth, Durrant’s group is now using a stainless steel catheter that has a 45-degree bend at the end and measures 5 mm in diameter.

This catheter has to be guided through the rhino’s cervix manually.

It’s difficult and requires a bit of manipulation to negotiate and twist this through gently, so it doesn’t damage the cervical tissue.

Barbara Durrant, Henshaw Endowed Director, Reproductive Sciences, San Diego Zoo Global.

To date, this method has worked for performing artificial insemination. Usually, it is done when the estrogen levels of a female rhino are high, because they will make her cervical tissue to become soft and wide.

However, it becomes more challenging when scientists have to transfer an embryo. This process is generally carried out later when the progesterone levels are high in the rhino’s cycle. However, that makes causes her cervix to close and stiffen. “So, we can’t use anything that’s rigid,” stated Durrant.

The elusive answer which Durrant and her group were searching for happened to be only 30 miles away. Yip and his Advanced Robotics and Controls Lab at UC San Diego were already working to develop flexible robotic catheters. Measuring just 2 m in length and 2-3 mm in diameter, the robots can be molded and maneuvered via intricate spaces deep inside the body with excellent accuracy.

Considering the fact that both the remaining northern white rhino females will not be able to carry a pregnancy, Durrant’s group will utilize the robotic catheter on the southern white rhino—a related subspecies. The idea is to initially produce the sperm and eggs of the northern white rhino utilizing stem cells from formerly collected frozen cell lines and subsequently fertilize them to create embryos of the northern white rhino. The robot would then be used by scientists to implant the ensuring embryos in surrogates.

The ultimate goal is to produce a self-sustaining herd of northern white rhinos, first in captivity and then back into the wild. That’s still many, many years down the line, but we have excellent collaborators both here and around the world that are working with us and helping us move steadily in that direction.

Barbara Durrant, Henshaw Endowed Director, Reproductive Sciences, San Diego Zoo Global.

The actual plan of Yip was to create the flexible, snake-like robotic catheters for applications in procedures such as colonoscopies for humans. However, when Durrant came to know about Yip’s novel technology, she saw an excellent chance for partnership and reached out immediately. Durrant was invited by Yip to visit his laboratory, and when she saw how valuable the robots would be for the zoo’s studies, a teamwork was born.

As we were talking, we started realizing some of the surgical robotics that we were developing for humans could potentially be translated to the conservation of endangered animals. And with the San Diego Zoo essentially in our backyard, this presented a great opportunity to work closely together.

Michael Yip, Professor, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, UC San Diego.

The flexible robot developed by Yip can navigate through highly complex canals, similar to the rhino’s cervix, more gently and easily when compared to traditional tools. In order to move back and forth, the robot utilizes a series of tendons that run along its length.

When a tendon on the left side of the device is pulled, it would make the robot to turn left. Similarly, when a tendon on another side is pulled, it would make it to turn in another direction.

You can basically marionette the device to curve into any shape you want. And you can control it to make very fine, delicate movements so that procedures could be done in the animal safely and non-traumatically.

Michael Yip, Professor, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, UC San Diego.

The novel robot will be fitted with a tiny camera head at the tip so that an operator can view where exactly it is going. In addition, the robot will also be equipped with a channel for sending its cargo— an embryo or semen—to the uterus.

At the end of the day, I hope that technologies like this can be used to both repopulate critically endangered species and counter some of the unfortunate human poaching that has been going on around the world.

Michael Yip, Professor, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, UC San Diego.

(Video credit: UC San Diego)

Tell Us What You Think

Do you have a review, update or anything you would like to add to this news story?

Leave your feedback