Surgery is a risky and brutal business. Even today’s most advanced medical technology—surgical robots—involves the touch of cold, unyielding metal to soft, delicate flesh. With all of those complications, surgery today can still be a precarious procedure. But soft robots first created by Harvard University scientists might provide some relief.
The robots’ ability to maneuver through small spaces and camouflage themselves like cuttlefish do initially caught the attention of the military. But now these squishy creations are being re-imagined as biomedical tools. Here’s Larry Greenemeier writing for Scientific American:
Hard robots require a sophisticated feedback mechanism to help them determine how much force to apply during surgery so they do not damage our delicate tissues and organs. Soft robots could take advantage of their rubbery appendages to reduce the likelihood of surgical damage, says Carl Vause, CEO of Soft Robotics. “Specifically, with medical devices, [you would be] allowing a robotic instrument to get into a small space, be reconfigurable in that space and do it in a way that’s tissue compliant.” Another advantage: Soft robots can be 3-D printed in a day or two from silicone and other materials that cost about $20.
Robotic surgery has prompted some concern in the recent past. The most well-known robot surgical system, known as da Vinci, is a $2 million endeavor that allows surgeons to manipulate laparoscopic instruments and an endoscopic camera attached to four robotic arms. But da Vinci significantly ups the cost of surgery and has also led to several lawsuits due to reports of sepsis, punctured blood vessels, and more.
It will be some time before soft robots are capable of anything nearly as sophisticated as da Vinci, but there is a lot of interest in how this emerging technology could be used in the medical field—either on its own or combined with a surgical system like da Vinci.
Experts are also interested in how soft robots could aid in prosthetics. Discover how scientists and engineers are adding intelligence and flexibility into advanced prostheses.
To learn more about one of the critters that inspired soft robots, watch “Kings of Camouflage” below and tune in to NOVA’s “Making Stuff: Wilder,” airing October 23 at 9/8c on PBS.