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Octopus-inspired robot arm to revolutionise surgery

Thu 14 May 2015


A robotic arm, designed to bend and contract like an octopus’ tentacle, has been created by scientists at an Italian university to support surgical procedures in compact areas of the body.

The remote-controlled machine can extend and become soft or rigid depending on the surgical environment to enable a minimally-invasive operation.

The prototype arm can squeeze between soft tissue and organs, holding them apart gently if necessary. A miniature surgical tool-kit is installed at the tip of the arm which carries out the surgery.

“The human body represents a highly challenging and non-structured environment, where the capabilities of the octopus can provide several advantages with respect to traditional surgical tools,” said Pontedera BioRobotics Institute professor Tommaso Ranzani.

“Generally, the octopus has no rigid structures and can thus adapt the shape of its body to its environment.

“Taking advantage of the lack of rigid skeletal support, the eight highly flexible and long arms can twist, change their length, or bend in any direction at any point along the arm,” he explained.

The robot arm research has been outlined in the scientific journal, Bioinspiration and Biomimetics [PDF]. The study explains the process of creating the flexible and stiffening technology using a 1.25-inches wide silicon tube containing inflatable cylindrical chambers.

By alternating the compression and inflation of the different chambers, the silicon tube can bend up to 255 degrees, and is able to stretch to 62% of its original length. To make the tube rigid, the robotics team inserted a plastic core made of light granules and extract air from the core to double the arm’s stiffness.

The machine has been tested using water-filled balloons at different weights to represent abdominal organs, one of the most cramped environments in the body.

“Traditional surgical tasks often require the use of multiple specialised instruments such as graspers, retractors, vision systems and dissectors to carry out a single procedure,” added Ranzani.

“We believe our device is the first step to creating an instrument that is able to perform all of these tasks, as well as reach remote areas of the body and safely support organs around the target site,” he continued.

Research departments in the U.S. including Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are also exploring ‘soft robotics’ which replicate the movement of octopus tentacles, elephant trunks and snakes.

Scientists hope that the technology will be able to provide assistance in complicated or delicate cases – such as rescuing bodies from crushed cars or from beneath rubble.


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