Snake robots: the future standard in minimally-invasive surgery

by Antonia Alalitei


Emerging technologies used to be a source of surprise and wonder for most of us, since every new discovery within the biomedical technological innovations field would bring something unexpected to the table. But in the world of today, with more potential and active research than ever before, we are on a straight path towards integrating into the ordinary how technology comes up with innovative solutions for more and more medical issues. 


It sounds reassuring to project ourselves towards this future(which is closer than it may seem), therefore today we’ll be discussing about a very ingenious med tech application, which has also been widely implemented and approved by healthcare systems worldwide as a standardized procedure.


Surgical procedures: the double blade of the knife


In the considerable history of surgical interventions, much progress has been made with respect to the techniques employed which have tremendously improved success rates. However, post-operatory trauma and pain of open surgeries have been continuing to affect patients worldwide, as well as carry risks of infection and other complications. 


An invaluable breakthrough in surgical technique that has dramatically decreased post-operatory trauma has been the introduction of endoscopic surgery, a procedure that eliminates the need for large incisions which carry the above mentioned risks. Instead, a special tool called a laparoscope is used, which requires a very small incision for insertion and uses a camera that provides the surgeon the visualization environment to perform the surgery. Other same-size incisions are made to introduce rigid operatory tools that allow the actual development of the procedure. 


Even though these incisions sometimes take even less than a day for the full recovery of the patient, human nature has the key attribute of always striving towards the better. How can minimally-invasive surgery become even less of a burden towards the patient, as well as easier for the surgeon? 


Nature’s answer? Biomimetics!


In the research world, where scientists are always looking forward to new ideas to implement for the progress of their work, it is always worth looking at the nature surrounding us for inspiration. One such particular hint of new technology inspired by nature comes from snakes. With their limbless bodies that are capable of reaching high speeds of movement, they became an interest to research initially due to their ability to reach spaces almost inaccessible to other animals, due to the extra degrees of freedom coming from their body conformation.


Prof. Alon Wolf, founder of the Biomechanics Laboratory of Technion – Israel University of Technology, found inspiration in snakes and created the so called snake robots or redundant robots( since they have more degrees of freedom than needed). Initially with the purpose of helping victims of natural disasters to be found in places with limited access due to their ability to enter highly convoluted volumes, these robots have been constantly evolving within Prof. Wolf’s lab, opening towards biomedical applications.


In the process of designing these robots, live snakes are brought into the lab and their movements are recorded through a motion capture system. The collected data is used to improve the mechanical structure of the robots, as well as designing algorithms for path planning and motion control of these robots. 


Another important aspect of the robot design consists of coming up with the optimal gaits for open-loop control. Due to the increased degrees of freedom, building and testing each possible control algorithm would take too long, therefore the laboratory focuses on rigid body simulations of the robot, which generate a proposed gait that can be then physically tested. Simulating also helps to shift towards an automatic and rapid gait generation.


Snake robots in surgery


The research findings of Prof. Wolf’s research group have been adapted for industrial applications in medicine via the spin-off company Medrobotics Corporation, a surgical products company with a focus on robotics. They manufacture their flagship product, the Flex Robotic System, a robot-assisted platform that provides the technology which allows surgeons to reach and operate areas of the body inaccessible before with minimally-invasive surgery.


The robotic system has two main attributes: flexibility and rigidity. In order to navigate around anatomy, a special steerable scope is provided by the robotic system, that can

reach the targeted zones and provide a reliable representation of the environment due to the HD vision system. Once the target is reached, the scope becomes rigid, a requirement for surgical procedures, and deploys flexible instruments that the surgeon can use to conduct the surgery. 


Advantages and future prospects


Being controlled remotely, the surgical platform bypasses the problematic coordination techniques that surgeons face when using laparoscopic operations. Since the anatomy navigation is done through the body’s natural orifices, the post-operatory healing of the patient is even further reduced. 


Having received FDA approval in the US back in 2015, this technology has great potential of expanding on different continents, as well as diversifying the variability of procedures it will tackle, thanks to ongoing research happening at Technion.



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