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Surgical robot snakes its way down the throat


April 4, 2014

The business end of Medrobotics Corp's Flex System

The business end of Medrobotics Corp's Flex System

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When we last heard about the modular snake robot designed by Carnegie Mellon University robotics professor Howie Choset, it had been used to explore an abandoned nuclear power plant. Now, however, a new line of robots based on it are set to explore something a little more confined – the human body.

Known as the Flex System, the surgical version of the snake robot was developed by Choset and two partners through Medrobotics Corp, a Carnegie Mellon spin-off venture.

Like the original robot, its sinuous body is composed of linked segments, each one of which follows the path of the one in front of it. At the front of the endoscopic robot is an HD video camera, LEDs, and ports that can accommodate third-party surgical tools for grasping or cutting tissue. Guided by a real-time feed from its camera, its movements are manually controlled using an external joystick.

Although it was initially developed with heart procedures in mind, it's currently being marketed for use in head-and-neck surgeries. It enters the patient's body through their mouth, allowing surgeons to "access and visualize surgical targets in difficult to reach locations," while lessening or eliminating the need for external incisions. Like other forms of minimally-invasive surgery, this should mean that recovery times are reduced, as are the chances of infection.

A limited commercial launch of the Flex System is now starting in select European markets.

Some of the intended uses of the original snake robot, incidentally, were to climb poles, move through pipes, and slither through debris performing search-and-rescue missions at disaster sites.

Sources: Carnegie Mellon University, Medrobotics Corp

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth
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