Snake robots will crawl up your nose to help surgeons perform surgery on you

Does the idea of a snake robot that enters your body via your nose or urethra — i.e., the duct in the end of the penis through which fluids are conveyed — sound like the stuff of nightmares? Well, forget any temporary thoughts of discomfort because such a robot may just save your life one day.

A bioengineering professor at Vanderbilt University, Nabil Simaan, has been busy developing snake-like robots for more than a decade.

He first started while he was at Johns Hopkins University in 2003 when he and fellow researchers developed an early snakebot with the goal of carrying out upper airway surgery.

Jump — or should that be slither? — forward to the present day and Simaan is continuing to hone the concept: Using the snake form factor to make surgical robots that can help mitigate against negative side effects of surgery by requiring only tiny entry points into the body to access areas that would be difficult for a human hand to reach.

“We’ve found that these robots have the ideal shape because they allow us to circumvent anatomical obstacles, and mean that you’re no longer limited to accessing the body using a wrist-on-a-stick — which is currently the state-of-the-art in robotic surgery,” Simaan told Digital Trends.

Using sensor-based intelligence, these flexible robots represent an exciting development: opening up possibilities, if not patients.

“Recently, we’ve been working on a snake robot that can enter the body through the nose and then drop down into the upper airway for microsurgery,” Simaan said. “What’s special about these robots is that they can sense their way in and participate in carrying out the procedure with the surgeon — so that the surgeon doesn’t have to manually steer them into place. The surgeon feeds them into the nose but they then sense their surroundings and feel their way.”

The research means that some otherwise arduous operations could be made into more straightforward outpatient procedures. For example, entering through the nose — therefore bypassing the gag reflex — Simaan’s flexible snake robots could carry out vocal cord operations without requiring major surgery and full anesthesia.

Next up? Entering through the urethra to help treat bladder cancer. “We’re expected to go into studies over the next couple of months,” he said. “The goal of the project is to use our snake robot to facilitate dexterous bladder cancer tumor investigations transurethrally.”

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