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Check Out This Tiny Skull-Burrowing Robotic Worm

It might just save your hearing one day.
November 15, 2015, 2:30pm
Image: Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft

Here is a very pleasant thought: a tiny robotic worm, a roboworm if you will, designed to drill tiny holes through the bones of your inner-ear. A robotic head surgeon.

It exists, of course. The NiLiBoRo, as its known, is the creation of researchers from Germany's Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft research organization ("Brain research meets industrial engineering"). The worm is to be presented this week at the Compamed trade fair, an annual gathering of medical technology engineers, thinkers, and salespeople taking place in Düsseldorf.


In truth, you may one day thank the NiLiBoRo. It's much better than the alternative.

The roboworm's specific task is to provide surgical access to tumors growing around the nerves and bones of the inner-ear. Doing so now usually requires cutting out huge chunks of the mastoid or petrosal bone, which is a big old plate of bone comprising a significant portion of skull real estate. It does a really good job of protecting your hearing hardware, but that presents a difficult task to surgeons needing to access said hardware.

The problem is that whole area is loaded with nerves and blood vessels and to successfully operate in the area it's necessary to remove as much bone as necessary to identify all of that fragile material. Usually, the entire bone has to go, which is replaced by a patch of fatty tissue removed from the patient's abdomen. Roboworm is sounding better and better.

The roboworm is able to dodge nerves that linear drills would come perilously close to nicking or worse.

NiLiBoRo is an acronym for "non-linear drilling robot." Drilling robots exist now, but they're all limited in that they can only drill in a straight (linear) line. "NiLiBoRo is the first one that can drill around corners as well," says project group scientist Lennart Karstensen in a statement. So, the roboworm is able to dodge nerves that linear drills would come perilously close to nicking or worse. Not only is it nimble enough to handle curves, it's capable of burrowing a hole wide enough (5 millimeters or so) for surgery.

"The worm consists of a 'head' and a 'tail' section," Karstensen explains. "Both of these parts are connected with one another by means of a flexible bellows mechanism." Imagine an articulated bus or tram, with a bendy accordion thing in the middle.

The roboworm is attached to eight to 12 hydraulic lines, which provide pressure in the right places within the worm's flexible midsection to make it do stuff. Make the accordion expand and the worm pushes forward with its drill-face. At the same time, it's also contracting in the back, causing the rear-end of the thing to pull forward toward the drill-end.

"We can alter the robot's direction of travel by adjusting the bladders in the front section," Karstensen offers. "For instance, if we wanted to move left then we fill the left bladder with less fluid than the right, which will cause the robot to veer to the left," All the while the thing is being tracked electromagnetically and via computed tomography.

The group has so far constructed the roboworm's front section at about five times the intended size of the roboworm. They estimate the thing should be ready to twist and stretch its way into your skull cavity within two years.