The use of human surgery is now being used in a repair robot that takes inspiration from snakes'' bendiness and sensing abilities to access difficult-to-reach areas.
COBRA, a continuum (snake-like) robot, has been developed at the University of Nottingham and has been successful in jet engine repair, as well as nuclear plant installation and maintenance, and is now being refined for medical use.
COBRAs researchers are the only group in the world to have developed this type of remote-controlled technology for the industry.
The UTC has now secured funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council Impact Accelerator to adapt COBRA into the first robot in the United Kingdom specifically for throat cancer and injury surgery.
These kinds of medical procedures are currently carried out with endoscopic equipment, but COBRA might increase surgical teams'' dexterity, precision, and high-definition view.
Using early tests to see if the robot can navigate and has sufficient motion capabilities to perform surgical procedures, says UTC Director andProfessor Dragos Axinte. The robot has potential in a wide range of applications, and medicine is an exciting direction.
The 5m long ultra-slender robot, which is only about the same thickness as a pencil (9mm in diameter) can easily slither through locked spaces and round tight bends in safety-critical machines, where miniature scales and unhospitable locations make it physically impossible for a person to inspect or repair without completely dismantling.
Due to a set of tendons that are traced along the robot snakes backbone, a compliant-joint structure and multiple continuous sections that allow the snake to bend at around 90. When these tendons are pulled (by remote commands) it drives the bending movements, mimicking the range of movements of a human operator when dealing the repair tools. The snake-arm can be different widths and has a hollow interior, through which different tools or instruments can be fitted.
COBRA is easily operated remotely after a few minutes of training, much like a large gaming joystick.
COBRA, which is based thousands of miles away, is navigated by a computer screen as it enters complex components deep inside engines or narrow pipe networks, such as in nuclear applications, with some only the same diameter as a one coin.
COBRA is currently equipped with a stereovision camera and a miniature cutting tool attached to the head of the snake, a complete end-effector; however, other devices to mend or monitor may be interchanged depending on the task.
Preliminary studies for COBRAS medical use have now been completed with Dr Oladejo Olaleye, a consultant ear, nose, throng, and robotic surgeon at the University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust.
COBRA was tested on a human dummy to access hard-to-reach parts at the back of the throat via the mouth, places that are currently inaccessible without highly invasive surgery. The high-definition camera provided excellent visual effects of the throat on an operating screen.
Given that the robot is so easy to manipulate, it took only five minutes of training to begin the demonstration at the UTC laboratory. The robot was manoged round bends with a hand-held drive and locked into positions in the throat to achieve excellent operating performance.
COBRA is the interface between engineering and medicine, and the future of diagnostic endoscopy and therapeutic surgery, which is, according to Dr Oladejo Olaleye, a viable and minimally invasive approach for diagnosis and treatment of illnesses in the throat, chest, and intestine.
COBRA''s strengths include a flexible structure, flexibility to bend and hold in position, high-definition views, ease of adaptation and portability. Achieving clear perceptions of throat and voice-box cancers will hopefully result in a complete clearance of the tumours, including reduced pain, improved survival and improved rehabilitation outcomes for our patients.
Small scale machines that are not designed specifically to navigate small cavities inside the human body. COBRA, by comparison, is very compact and portable, extending its potential in thoracic, stomach, and bowel operations as well as throat for application in different operating settings.
Before clinical trials to transform the robots in medical practice, the next steps for COBRA are a series of validation studies.
The robot is at Technology Readiness Level 6 just one step away from being available on the market, which is a critical monitoring tool in safety-critical situations.
In the fast-paced aviation world, repairing an aircraft engine is a complex process. Specialist maintenance engineers are required, and most repairs must take place with the engine in-situ.
These engineers may now travel thousands of miles to fix affected aircraft, but with COBRA they will be able to just touch them from a computer screen wherever they are. This step decrease will help the aviation industry reduce its carbon emissions, while also significantly saving it both time and money, without compromising the health and safety of the operators.
The team is collaborating on constructing a disposable version of COBRA for use in the decommissioning of nuclear plants, where there is a need to inspect radioactively contaminated components, but the robot would need to be left at the scene for safety.
Disaster rescue is another potential application for COBRA, which the researchers are eager to pursue with funding.
The snake arm robot is the perfect design to explore narrow areas inside collapsed structures or a caving accident, for example. It might really aid in the search for survivors, especially when it is hazardous for rescuers. With a carbon dioxide detector attached to the probe it might pick up human breathing and a camera may report back visual updates.