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This tiny robot tank could one day help doctors explore your intestine

With a bulky, armored appearance, heavy duty treads for gripping, and a claw arm on the front, the Endoculus robot vehicle looks like it belongs on the battlefield. In fact, it’s just 3 cm wide, 2.3 cm tall, and designed for an entirely different kind of inhospitable environment: Your intestine.

“[This] robotic capsule endoscope, Endoculus, is a tethered robot designed for colonoscopy applications,” Mark Rentschler, a mechanical engineering professor in the Advanced Medical Technologies Laboratory at the University of Colorado, told Digital Trends. “The goals are twofold: design a platform for a robot endoscope in the gastrointestinal tract, and enable autonomous capabilities to assist physicians with disease diagnosis and treatment during these procedures.”

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The idea of a robot tank crawling around in your intestine at speeds of up to 40 mm per second might sound pretty horrific, but nothing about a regular colonoscopy sounds particularly pleasant either. The benefit is purely in the ability to figure out what’s going on in your guts, and to take samples where required.

This is where Endoculus’ tool port comes into play, since it can be kitted out with instruments such as forceps and snares to take any tissue samples that are required. According to an article in IEEE Spectrum, it’s also equipped with a camera, LED lights for finding its way, and tubes for injecting air and water. It’s one of a number of breakthrough medical robots that have emerged over the past several years — and could prove incredibly useful for doctors and patients alike. Below is a demonstration of the robot in action.

Warning: The following video contains anatomical footage that may be uncomfortable for some viewers.

AMTL - Novel Optimization-Based Design and Surgical Evaluation of a Robotic Capsule Colonoscope

Rentschler said that, so far, the team has built the Endoculus platform and “established a number of effective autonomous capabilities using this platform on the benchtop and with animal tissues.” They are now figuring out how to work out mapping and localization so that the vehicle will be able to steer itself to some degree. There will also be the inevitable requirement that, at some point, a human must volunteer to show that it works as promised.

In addition, there are plans for a second generation version of the vehicle that will “extend diagnostic and therapy capabilities into the small bowel,” Rentschler continued. “This would allow physicians a robotically controlled platform to advance an endoscope into the small bowel. Combining the small bowel access and addressing incomplete colonoscopy shortcomings positions this robotic endoscope approach as a game-changer for gastroenterology.”

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