Healthcare Technology Featured Article

May 29, 2012

Newest Surgery Assistant: Snake Robots



It really creeped me out when I first heard about it, but it’s here. Tiny snake robots slithering through your body, helping a surgeon find diseases and operate on you, according to the AP’s Kevin Begos.

He reports that scientists and doctors are using the creeping metallic tools to perform heart, prostate cancer and other surgeries on diseased organs. The snakebots are very fastidious and productive – they carry “tiny cameras, scissors and forceps, and even more advanced sensors are in the works,” according to the story.  

For now, the humans are still in control. But experts say don’t think it’s just a fad – someday soon they will roam the body on their own.

And they are just as repulsive-looking (if, like me, you’re terrified of snakes) as the real thing. They’re being used to navigate among networks of pipes, climb poles, clear mud from trenches. Back in 2010, it was thought they could be used to disarm explosives.  And now, medicine.

"It won't be very long before we have robots that are nanobots, meaning they will actually be inside the body without tethers," Dr. Michael Argenziano, the chief of adult cardiac surgery at New York-Presbyterian Hospital and Columbia University Medical Center in New York, told Begos.

Begos wrote that Argenziano was involved with some of the first U.S. Food and Drug Administration clinical trials on robotic heart surgery more than 10 years ago. He told Begos that snake robots have become a commonly used tool “that gives surgeons a whole new perspective. It's like the ability to have little hands inside the patients, as if the surgeon had been shrunken, and was working on the heart valve," he told Begos. 

But Argenziano and experts in robotics say the new “snakes” work best when they're designed for very specific tasks. "The robot is a tool. It is no different in that sense than a scalpel. It's really a master-slave device," he told Begos in their interview.

Howie Choset, who, according to Begos, a veteran researcher and developer of robots at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University, believes his snake robot and others like it help reduce medical costs by making complex surgeries faster and easier.

The allure of using surgical robots is that it’s far less invasive than traditional open surgery, allowing patients to heal faster and from fewer complications. 

Choset has also built larger snake robots designed for search and rescue, or just exploration. “They can climb poles or trees and then look around through a camera in the head, and slither through places humans can't reach,” Begos wrote.

Robots in healthcare isn’t brand new, but letting them roam free may not provide the same peace of mind to patients (like me), as does traditional medical robotics. We’ll just have to wait and see if it catches on.




Edited by Braden Becker




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