This snake-like robot could be used for colonoscopies

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snake-like robot Ben-Gurion University

[Image from Ben-Gurion University]

Ben-Gurion University researchers are working on creating an ingestible snake-like robot that can navigate through the small intestine for a robotic colonoscopy.

The tiny, swallowable robot, deemed SAW (single actuator wave-like robot), moves in a wave motion and is able to move through the environment of the small intestine.

“The external shape of the robot is a 2D projection of a rotating helix,” said David Zarrouk, one of the robot’s inventors and head of the Bio-Inspired and Medical Robotics Lab at BGU, in a press release. “We can simply reverse the direction by reversing the direction of the rotating motor.”

Originally, the researchers wanted to create an ingestible robot with a camera that could send feedback to a clinician during a colonoscopy. Pill cameras serve that function, but most of the time they are floating freely throughout the digestive system and take nearly 12 hours for it to complete its journey. Not only that, but pill cameras can get stuck in the body and can’t get tissue samples.

BGU researchers wanted to develop an inchworm-like robot that could fit through tight spaces, but their original idea was redesigned when they realized it wasn’t ideal for traveling the constantly turning lengths of the intestines.

Instead, the researchers used the movement of a snake to draft their robot idea. According to the researchers, snakes move in an undulating wave that allows it to travel large distances in a short amount of time. What they came up with was a robot with a motor and a rotating helix.

Its snake-like design is comprised of interlocking 3D printed plastic pieces. When they tested it, it was shown as being able to move quickly across a variety of terrain ranging anywhere from water to rocky soil.

The research team has been using 3D printers and plastic-like materials to make simple prototypes of the robot. The plastic material they are currently using is not able to be used for biological applications, and the design of the robot needs to be further tested to see if it would get stuck in the curves of the intestine. They also want to test if the robot can climb upward.

“One possible material would be biocompatible latex, which is a flexible but durable material,” said Zarrouk, who is also a professor in BGU’s department of mechanical engineering.

Because of the use of 3D printing, the robot would be able to be scaled down to swallow and fit inside the intestine. Current models are too big to fit.

“In theory, if the robot is small enough and doesn’t disintegrate, there is no significant risk,” Zarrouksaid.

The team plans to test the robot in living creatures as soon as they have a miniature version of it. The researchers also hope that they will be able to equip the robot with a camera, small cutting tools for biopsies and a tool to cauterize damaged tissue and stop bleeding.

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