Researchers from University of New South Wales – Sydney have created a soft robotic arm that is both flexible and compact. This robotic arm can be inserted into the body like an endoscope and can be used to print 3D biomaterial directly onto the surface of internal organs and tissues. The device, known as F3DB, is a prototype that features a swivel head attached to a long and flexible snake-like robotic arm.

Currently, 3D bioprinting is used mostly for research purposes and requires large 3D printing machines to produce cellular structures outside the living body. F3DB enables direct delivery of biomaterials into the intended tissues or organs with less invasiveness. The printing nozzle can be configured to generate predetermined shapes or, alternatively, manually operated to accommodate complex bioprinting tasks. The researchers have evaluated the viability of living biomaterials post-printing and observed that the cells remained unaffected by the process. To facilitate the printing procedure, the team employed a machine learning-based controller. The robotic arm can flex and rotate due to the hydraulic system, and can be custom-built to any necessary length. Moreover, its stiffness can be precisely adjusted using various elastic tubes and fabrics.

The robot can be used as an all-in-one endoscopic surgical tool to perform a range of functions, especially in surgeries to remove certain cancers, such as colorectal cancer. The nozzle of the F3DB printing head can be used as an electric scalpel to mark and cut away cancerous lesions. The nozzle also has the capability to direct water to clean both excess tissue and blood from the site, while simultaneously printing biomaterials for faster healing. Team UNSW has also conducted a demonstration of this multi-functional capability on a pig’s intestine.

The research team intends to add more features into the arm, including a built-in camera and a real-time scanning system that can generate 3D tomography of moving tissues within the body. The next phase of F3DB development involves conducting in vivo trials on live animals.