Posted with permission from International Business Times

Endoscopies have traditionally been invasive and painful, however, new robots developed by a Harvard research might change the scenario. A tiny robotic arm attached to the endoscope might provide doctors better dexterity, sensing, and could expand its current abilities.

The robotic arm lays flat through the endoscope’s passage through the human body and then opens up with tools surgeons can use for the procedure. It will offer more flexibility to surgeons than tools that are used currently, which are essentially rigid. The robot, which comes with a rigid skeleton surrounded by soft materials, is endowed with sensing capabilities which can provide the surgeon a feeling of where it is and what it is touching.

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The team has been able make this tool using chemical bond instead of adhesive, which is mainly responsible for its flexibility.

These kind of robots are called soft robots since they can actually measure the stiffness of the human body and, therefore, can work inside it without causing puncture or tissue tear.  It has already been tested on a pig’s stomach and the next stage of testing is a live animal.

“At the millimeter scale, a soft device becomes so soft that it can’t damage tissue but it also can’t manipulate the tissue in any meaningful way. That limits the application of soft microsystems for performing therapy. The question is, how can we develop soft robots that are still able to generate the necessary forces without compromising safety,” Tommaso Ranzani, a postdoctoral fellow who co-authored the paper titled, said in the paper titled, “Smaller, smarter, softer robotic arm for endoscopic surgery” published on Harvard’s Website last week.

The robotic arm comes with a suction cup that lets it exert more pressure than a hard and sharp tool can without damaging internal organs and it opens up using a water-powered actuator, which is great since using electric voltage to open it could prove risky.

According to the team that created it, specialized fabric has been using in making the robotic tool, which would make it feasible to mass-produce it.

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The robotic arm can also be used in complex surgeries on the brain or lungs since it can be shrunk down in a scale of about 1mm.

While robots might not be close to replacing doctors, they can make their job a lot easier and in fact, they might open up possibilities in the medical field, especially for at risk patients who need complex surgeries. Operating on complex parts of the human body, especially the minuscule, one needs a level of dexterity and accuracy that even the best surgeons might not be able to deliver. A robot arm, controlled by a doctor, holds a lot of possibilities for the surgical field.

While the research is currently in its infancy, chances are that it might end up saving lives one day.