If Shane Farritor has his way, medical responders of the future may be less than 3 inches tall. But, these tiny-wheeled robots-slipped into the abdomen and controlled by surgeons located up to several hundred miles away-would be giants in saving the lives of roadside accident victims and soldiers injured on the battlefield.
Farritor is an associate professor in the department of mechanical engineering in at the University of Nebraska (Lincoln, NE). He and his colleagues have developed a handful of miniature prototypes.
Each camera-carrying robot is approximately the width of a lipstick case.
They are designed to illuminate a patient's abdomen, beam back video images, and carry different tools to help surgeons stop internal bleeding by clamping, clotting or cauterizing wounds. On the battlefield, the devices would be inserted into wounds to allow remote surgeons to determine how critical an injury is and what immediate steps to take. On the homefront, the robot could be used to perform laparoscopic or minimally invasive surgery ranging from gall bladder removal to hernia repair.
The 3-inch long, aluminum-cased robots contain gears, motors, lenses, camera chips and electrical boards. "Three inches seems to be our limit at the moment because of the electrical components we use," says Mark Rentschler, a graduate student in biomedical engineering who has been working on the project. "If we were to make 1,000 robots, we would be able to afford customized electrical components that would reduce the size of the robot by half."
The scientists soon plan to test a prototype of a mobile biopsy robot designed to take samples of tissue. In addition, they are making modified robots that can be inserted into the stomach cavity through the esophagus.
This spring, NASA plans to use the robots for simulated, extreme environment training. Astronauts will practice surgical skills and procedures in a submarine off the Florida coast.
"It's hard to teach an astronaut to be a surgeon," says Dmitry Oleynikov, M.D., director of education and training for the minimally invasive and computer-assisted surgery initiative. "I'll be the surgeon and they will be the technologists. Devices such as this could be invaluable on long duration space flights where medical personnel and equipment are sparse."
Oleynikov claims that the robots have the potential "to completely change the minimally invasive surgery landscape. This is just the start of things to come regarding robotic devices at work inside the body during surgery.
"These remotely controlled in vivo robots provide the surgeon with an enhanced field of view from arbitrary angles, as well as provide dexterous manipulators not constrained by small incisions in the abdominal wall," adds Oleynikov. "It's a stark contrast to existing laparoscopic techniques, which allow surgeons to perform operations through small incisions.
"The benefits of laparoscopy are limited to less complex procedures, however, because of losses in imaging and dexterity compared to conventional surgery. In fact, the view is better than the naked eye, because the in-color pictures from the roaming robots are magnified 10 times.
"Our family of tiny-wheeled robots will replace standard surgery," predicts Oleynikov. "At some point, the surgeon's hands won't need to be in the body at all."