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Snakebots Go Up the Nose for Safer Surgery

The future of less invasive and less risky surgical procedures could lie in snake-inspired robotics.

The concept of a snakebot – essentially a modular robot comprised of independent, but connected parts and controlled by a master head unit – is not new.

So while current applications have primarily focused on getting a closer view of difficult to access or dangerous areas, Vanderbilt University bioengineering professor Nabil Simaan saw how this technology could play a key role on the operating table.

Taking a cue from nature, snakebots are able to manipulate their shape according to their surroundings. So, in a surgical environment, these robots, armed with sensors that guide them according to their proximity to internal anatomy, could help make many surgeries much safer.

Primarily, this means mitigating the effects of initial incisions that require greater healing focus and could be a source of serious infections.

This has lead Simaan and his team to investigate the use of a snakebot that could enter through the nose in reaching the upper airway for a number of procedures. The team feels their snakebot could be so invasive that anesthetic wouldn’t even be necessary.

This would reduce both recovery and operation time – decreasing medical care expenses in the process.

Perhaps most unique about these medical robots is that in contrast to other approaches that rely on flexible instruments and cameras, the snakebot wouldn’t be completely controlled by the surgeon. Rather, they would use their sensing capabilities to assist the surgeon in not only accessing the surgical area, but performing the necessary surgery.

And this could be just the beginning. This technology could be a turning point in the access and examination of tumors.

More specifically, as uncomfortable as this sounds, the use of a surgical snakebot could be used to help treat bladder cancer. The only concern is that the access point would be a bit south of the nose.

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