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Taking inspiration from biology to create soft robots for minimally invasive surgery

January 26, 2016 15:10 – 16:00 Kaspar Althoefer, King’s College, UK

Most current tools and instruments, including those that are robot-assisted, employed for minimally invasive surgery (MIS) are made of rigid elements and often have only a low number of degrees of freedom (DoFs), limiting their ability to access remote areas of the human body during keyhole surgery. As part of the EU-funded initiative STIFF-FLOP, a multi-disciplinary team of researchers from leading European research organisations study and create soft and flexible robots to overcome the limitations of traditional systems used for MIS.

Taking a leaf out of the book of nature whose creatures show remarkable skills, optimised through a long evolutionary process, the STIFF-FLOP team aims to capture the fascinating capabilities of the octopus to construct safe robot devices to improve current surgical practice. Especially the octopus’ faculty to morph the states of its tentacles from soft to stiff, as required for the task at hand, holds great promise to create surgical devices that can enter a patient’s abdominal cavity through a small incision in a safe manner and then to stiffen to allow the required manipulation of tissue at the operating site. STIFF-FLOP aims also to advance surgical tools on other fronts including fluidic actuation, robot-environment interaction sensing, control and intelligent navigation, exploiting capabilities that are second nature to animals like the octopus.

Collaborating closely with biologists, experienced laparoscopic surgeons and engineers, STIFF-FLOP’s vision is to realise bio-inspired and fully-integrated surgical robot systems. Advancements and challenges, especially those related to creating integrated surgical tools, merging soft structures with actuators and sensors whilst adhering to the strict miniaturization requirements of MIS instruments will be discussed.