A Colonoscopy Robot and Other Weird Biomedical Tech From IEEE's Biggest Robotics Conference

A white accordion-like worm robot lies next to a ruler that show it to be 12 centimeters long. Wires trail out of one end of the robot.
Image: University of Colorado/ICRA

A host of bizarre biomedical robots turned up at ICRA 2017, IEEE’s flagship robotics conference, which took place earlier this month in Singapore. We saw swallowable robots that poke the stomach with needles and worm-like robots that explore the colon. Equal parts unnerving and fascinating, these bots aim to help people—perhaps in ways we hope we never need. After sifting through this year’s presentations, we’re bringing you the five most terrifying and inventive video demonstrations. ​

1. Swallowable biopsy robot of doom

This capsule robot innocuously tumbles around inside your stomach—until it reaches suspicious-looking tissue. Then, like an EpiPen on steroids, the soft-bodied bot whips out a needle and jabs that spot inside your stomach in ten fast pumping movements. But this swallowable needle doesn’t inject anything. Instead, it suctions up samples of tissue that doctors can analyze for signs of cancer or other disease. Then it moves on to other suspicious spots inside the stomach—jab, jab jab!

The biopsy technique, called fine needle aspiration, is typically performed from outside the body. This capsule robot, designed by researchers at the physical intelligence department at Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems, in Stuttgart, Germany, moves the technique inside the body. Thanks guys.

Previous swallowable biopsy robot designs only scrape at the surface tissue, they argued at ICRA. Doctors need a tool that will really get in there, and this design will do it. They tested it out on fresh pork fat placed in a plastic human stomach model. The capsule is equipped with a magnet, allowing the researchers to guide the robot’s orientation and jabbing motions while inside the stomach. Of course after the job is done, the robot, with tissue sample inside, has to be retrieved. Its inventors suggest pulling it back out of the throat by a tether. Thanks again, guys!    

2. Smashable Fingers

Sure you can make an electronic prosthetic hand that is controlled by person’s nervous system, but can you make one that can survive getting smashed by a hammer? The Bretl Research Group, led by Timothy Bretl at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, decided this was a necessary feature of prosthetic fingers. So the group fabricated an insanely flexible model hand, hooked it up with sensors, and, using various finger torture devices, smashed, twisted and bent the fingers in every direction (with the video camera rolling). You might wince, but the deformed digits just bend right back into shape. 

The key was to eliminate the weak spots common in commercial prosthetic hands. That would be the pin joints—the hinges around which rigid prosthetic fingers bend, but often break. So the Bretl group eliminated the fragile part, replacing it with flexible materials. For each finger, they 3D-printed the “bone” with a flexible polyurethane material, routed it with pressure sensor wires, molded a silicone skin around it, and then inserted three layers of pre-stressed spring steel. The thumb is made similarly, but equipped with a motor. After being smashed with a hammer, the hand can pick up that hammer—or a glass of wine or a pair of scissors—and use it like nothing happened. 

3. The colonoscopy robot you never knew you wanted

This robot moves like a worm, inching its way up the rectum and around the entire colon. And yes, someday people may elect to put this device in their bodies. It’s meant to serve as an alternative to traditional colonoscopy, an uncomfortable procedure in which a physician snakes a thin, flexible colonoscope through the large intestine to look for signs of colon cancer and other diseases. A small, controllable robot equipped with a camera and tools to collect tissue samples could do the same job, with less discomfort. I suppose that’s some consolation.

Several research groups have built prototypes of colonoscopy robots, each with their own ick factor. There are “legged” capsule robots and “treaded” capsule robots. This one, developed by the Rentschler Research Group at the University of Colorado, Boulder, falls in the “worm” robot category. It has three body sections that scrunch up and expand, propelling it along the intestine in a peristaltic motion. Each body section of the robot contains three shape memory alloy (SMA) springs, which compress and expand, and are cooled by forced air flow. It can move 15 centimeters in 6 minutes. Perhaps it’s less painful than a colonoscopy, but this worm robot might be a tough sell until someone gives it a better name. 

4. Laser-assisted robot arm tries not to be a bull in a china shop

It’s a little awkward and slow, but this robot arm will grab and retrieve that hard-to-reach object you need. All you have to do is aim a laser beam at it. (And hope that you don’t bump into anything else along the way.) The invention, developed by researchers at the Robotics Lab at University of Massachusetts Lowell and the Helping Hands Lab at Northeastern University, aims to aid people who use mobility scooters. Home robotic arms are expensive and often challenging to operate, and this team of engineers wanted to make something simple enough that any scooter rider could use it.

So they mounted onto a mobility scooter a robot arm, and equipped both the scooter and the arm with depth cameras similar to the Microsoft Kinect Sensor, which is used with Xbox. When the user aims a laser beam at the object she wants, the robot arm moves to that object, the camera scans it, and the team’s grasp detection algorithm determines how to maneuver itself in order to pick it up. The contraption got it right about 90 percent of the time, the team reported at ICRA. Unfortunately the thing is huge and the arm tends to collide with other stuff in the room. That could be resolved by adding more depth sensors, the team reported. 

5. Wearable vision system takes the ouch out of canes

A blind person walks into a crowded room and has a dilemma: He needs to find an empty chair to sit in, but doesn’t want to go around bopping ankles with his cane as he tests all the occupied chairs first. To help, researchers at MIT’s computer science and artificial intelligence laboratory came up with a guiding system based on vibration feedback. The system includes a depth camera, an embedded computer, a vibration belt, and a brail system. The user wears the camera and computer around his neck and the vibration belt around his torso. Based on the vibration feedback, he can discern the location of obstacles in the area before testing them out with his cane. It can even tell him which chair is empty. To test the system, the engineers sent blind volunteers wandering through the halls of their buildings and into mock-up spaces. The volunteers were more hesitant and walked more slowly when they wore the feedback system, but they were able to navigate without using their canes. 

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