A Robotic Snake Is Now Capable Of Performing Surgery

Last year, Carnegie Mellon robotics professor Howie Choset designed a modular robotic snake, which it quickly put to work exploring the pipes within the abandoned Zwentendorf Nuclear Power Plant in Austria - a facility constructed in the 1970s but never turned on. The trouble at the time was that although there were many robots capable of exploring damaged, derelict, or destroyed nuclear facilities, none of them could adequately inspect the pipes. CMU's slithering synthetic snake was just the ticket. 

Now, that very same design has been co-opted into another robot, designed to explore something altogether more confined, and significantly less dangerous: the human body. The robot is known as The Flex System, and was created by Choset and two partners in a Carnegie Mellon spin-off venture known as Medrobotics Corp. Although he's happy that the fruits of his labor will eventually help surgical patients, Choset stressed that he had to let go of his technology to make it possible. The snake couldn't simply be his anymore.

"Commercializing a surgical device is not something that a robotics professor such as myself can accomplish with grants to the university," he explained. "It requires a large, long-term investment that only a private company can bring together, as well as specialized medical device expertise. When it comes to making this technology available to patients, the company really did the heavy lifting." 

As with the original nuclear snake, The Flex System has a sinuous body composed of linked segments; each of these segments follows the path of the one in front of it. The robot's 'face' is equipped with an HD video camera, LEDS, and ports designed to accomodate third-party surgical tools for grasping or cutting tissues. Using a real-time feed from its camera, surgeons will be capable of manually controlling its motions using an external joystick. 

Flex was originally developed withheart procedures in mind, but for the time being, it seems like that's a goal for the future. The Flex System is currently being marketed for use in head and neck surgeries, with hints that it may one day be enhanced and expanded to carry out other procedures, as well. 

"The Flex System provides a unique platform to access and visualize surgical targets in difficult to reach locations, such as the oropharynx (the area connecting the mouth to the top of the throat) and endolarnyx (within the larynx)," noted Dr. Marshall Strome, Medrobotics medical advisor and chairman emeritus of the Cleveland Clinic Head and Neck Institute. 

The robot enters a patient's body through the mouth, allowing surgeons to "access and visualize surgical targets in difficult-to-reach locations." This also lessens or eliminates the need for external incisions, meaning any procedures performed by the Flex System will be minimally invasive, reducing both recovery time and the chance of infection. 

Currently, the medical machine is undergoing a limited commercial launch in several select European markets. There's no word yet on plans for a worldwide commercial release, though they're certainly in the works.

Other uses for Choset's robots include exploring the rubble of collapsed buildings to perform search-and-rescue and climbing poles to assist in construction projects.