From a press release by Case Western Reserve University:
Drawing on an understanding of how slugs, leeches and earthworms traverse their environments and grasp objects, a team of Case Western Reserve University biologists and engineers has developed two flexible robotic devices that could make invasive medical procedures such as colonoscopies safer for patients and easier for doctors to administer.
The researchers from Case’s departments of biology, mechanical and aerospace engineering and electrical engineering and computer science have obtained a patent for a new endoscopic device and a provisional patent for a gripping device that may have industrial as well as medical uses.
The endoscopic device, constructed of three muscle-like actuators made of latex bladders and surrounded by nylon mesh, looks like a nine-inch long hollow worm. The actuator segments, inflating and contracting in sequence, propel the device forward, mimicking the undulating movement of slugs and worms. “This device can literally worm its way into complicated places or into curving tubing such as the colon,” Chiel explained.
The current prototype can be added to existing medical endoscopes. Eventually, the device may be miniaturized and equipped with sensors that enable it to work autonomously. According to Chiel, the research team will also be working to make the device more flexible, imitating the reflex responses of slugs and worms to changes in their environment. As a result of these refinements, the new device could reduce discomfort and the risk of injury among patients undergoing invasive medical tests, and thereby increase compliance with doctors’ orders to have such tests performed.
The second device, a biologically inspired “gripper,” mimics the way hungry California sea slugs in Chiel’s lab grasp seaweed in its many highly slippery forms. The prototype consists of a four-inch, ball-like device, surrounded by muscle-like actuators in the form of tubes or rings. One of these tubes contains a mouth that opens and closes. The ball pushes forward, opens its mouth and grasps at the object before it.