Robotic worm for surgery

Minimally invasive surgical procedures have made it possible for doctors to access and repair parts of the body that were unreachable under older conditions. Still, the tools for these operations continue to evolve and improve to solve additional problems.

For example, operations on the inner ear require passing through bone without disrupting blood vessels or nerves. Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Production Technology and Automation have created a “non-linear drilling robot” that can bore small openings bone that are not in a straight line. In effect, it can drill around corners to avoid sensitive tissues. It creates a 5 mm hole that is large enough to support surgical procedures such as tumor removal. The robot relies on 8 to 12 hydraulic lines that control the device’s forward movement. Bladders in the rear are filled to anchor it, then a bellows is filled to extend the device forward. The rear bladders are emptied and the “body” of the device is pulled forward as the bellows empty, mimicking the movement of a worm. By adjusting how the front compartments are filled, the device can be steered in any direction.

Currently, the developers have created prototypes that are five times larger than the ultimate size. They hope to have a miniaturized version ready for testing in about two years.