Soft Robots for Surgery Are Just Around the Engineering Corner

The squish of silicon meets the squish of human guts.

Feb 6 2016, 3:30pm

Behind the collective cringe of surgery there's certainly many things: blood, lights, cold sterility, possibility of death. But the whole ordeal is symbolized perfectly by its tools, the rigidity of steel in hyper-intimate contact with the profound squish of the human body.

Fortunately, this jarring contrast may soon enough be replaced by soft robotics, at least in part. In the February issue of IEEE Transactions on Robotics, engineers from the BioRobotics Institute describe "a modular soft manipulator for minimally invasive surgery." It's just what it sounds like.

The unit is pneumatically activated and is based on a silicon matrix. It achieves the rigidity needed to do surgery-type things thanks to what's known as granular jamming, e.g. when some materials like sand or snow stiffen under pressure. The result isn't even that creepy, or it at least isn't as creepy is that robotic head-surgery worm.

As the authors of the current paper explain, one of the crucial limiting factors in current minimal access surgery (MAS) schemes is that organs and other gut-stuff are often in the way of actual surgery targets. "This, together with the reduced dexterity of the instruments, represents an important limitation in the execution of many surgical procedures," they write. The module the group describes would serve as a tool to delicately clear a pathway, manipulating and even lifting organs out of the way. As currently designed, the module isn't precise enough for tasks beyond retraction, but there's hope for the technology to act as a "building block" for future soft surgery tools.

Despite the demonstrated softness of the module, further ex vivo and in vivo testing will be required to affirm the safety of the technology, the paper notes.