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.