Three-inch life savers

Researchers in Nebraska have developed three-inch long robots that can be inserted into the abdomen and controlled by surgeons hundreds of kilometres away.

Medical responders of the future may be three inches tall or less. But, these tiny-wheeled robots – slipped into the abdomen and controlled by surgeons hundreds of kilometres away – may be giants in saving lives.

Each camera-carrying robot — the width of a lipstick case — would illuminate the patient’s abdomen, beam back video images and carry different tools to help surgeons stop internal bleeding by clamping, clotting or cauterising wounds.

Physicians and engineers at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and University of Nebraska-Lincoln, are already turning the concept into reality with a handful of miniature prototypes.

“We want to be the Microsoft leader in this technology and be the state that changes the way surgery is done,” said Shane Farritor, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering in UNL’s College of Engineering and Technology.

“This work has the potential to completely change the minimally invasive surgery landscape,” said Dmitry Oleynikov, M.D., director of education and training for the minimally invasive and computer-assisted surgery initiative. “This is just the start of things to come regarding robotic devices at work inside the body during surgery.”

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.

“These remotely controlled in vivo robots provide the surgeon with an enhanced field of view from arbitrary angles, as well as provide dextrous manipulators not constrained by small incisions in the abdominal wall,” Dr. Oleynikov said.

In fact, the view is better than the naked eye, he said, because the in-colour pictures from the roaming robots are magnified ten-fold.

The UNMC and UNL team plans to test a final prototype of a mobile biopsy robot designed to take samples of tissue. In addition, the design team is making modified robots that can be inserted into the stomach cavity through the oesophagus.

The three-inch long, aluminium-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,” said designer Mark Rentschler, a Ph.D. candidate in biomedical engineering at UNL. “If we were to make 1,000 robots we would be able to afford customised electrical components that would reduce the size of the robot by half.”

The design team said initially the mini-robots would be single-use devices, although they eventually may be able to be sterilised for multiple use.

The group intends to create a local, spin-off company and then seek US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval of the devices, which would be applicable for any laparoscopic or minimally invasive surgery, from gall bladder to hernia repair.