Remember that crawly alien that drove Chekov crazy in Star Trek II? Now imagine it as a robot, with a camera, worming into an orifice other than the ear… From MIT’s Technology Review comes a story about Dr. Hillel Chiel’s studies in worm locomotion, and a potential medical application:
Building on several years of work studying the movements and behavior of soft-tissue animals, Chiel’s team has constructed an endoscopic device made up of three muscle-like latex actuators — mechanisms that help the robot move in its environment — covered in nylon mesh. The device resembles a nine-inch hollow worm with a small camera inside it. Right now, it’s about a half-inch wide, but the team hopes to miniaturize it down to no more than 20 millimeters in diameter.
By inflating and contracting the mechanism, using a self-managing movable seal system that the researchers had to create, the actuator segments move the robotic “worm” forward — the same way its biological counterpart scrunches its body to propel itself. Doctors will use a joystick, initially connected by wire to the device, to control the direction in which it travels, says Chiel.
Chiel admits that worms aren’t an obvious inspiration for engineering a new technique for performing a colon cancer screening. But its developers believe their device could be an advance in the field, allowing the diagnostic camera to move more easily through the long and twisted pathways of the large intestine, which would help doctors spot signs of cancer or bleeding more easily.
“This device can literally ‘worm’ its way into complicated places or curved tubing such as the colon,” says Chiel.
The worm technology might decrease patient discomfort and improve diagnostic sensitivity, and so there are hopes this innovation can make colonoscopy screening more palatable to the general public. They’ve got their work cut out for them.