A collaboration between researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, University of Pittsburgh, and Technion University in Israel has produced a miniaturized robotic probe that may one day replace traditional laparoscopic devices. The system is being developed by a spin off startup Cardiorobotics, Inc.
The CardioArm is operated using a computer and a joystick. It has 102 degrees of freedom, three of which can be activated at once. This allows it to enter through a single point in the chest and wrap around the heart until it reaches the right spot to, say, remove problematic tissue. “The nice thing about [the] design is that each joint follows where you went in space. That’s not always possible in other designs,” says Webster. This kind of control prevents the probe from bumping into sensitive tissue. The disadvantage of a jointed robot, however, is that it’s harder to miniaturize, Webster says.
The smallest version of the device is 300 millimeters long and has a diameter of 12 millimeters. Eventually, the CMU researchers hope to make a snake small enough to enter the bloodstream through a blood vessel, says Marco Zenati, one of the principal researchers on the CardioArm project and a professor of surgery at the University of Pittsburgh.
Zenati has used robotic surgical assistants in the past and notes that they all have limitations. The da Vinci system, for example, can’t “squeeze into tight locations within the human body” and requires five or six entryways, he says.
Realizing the need for more-advanced robots for minimally invasive surgery, Zenati teamed up with Howie Choset, a TR35 honoree known for his work at CMU on crawling robotic snakes, and Alon Wolf, founder and director of the Biorobotics and Biometrics Lab at Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology.
“We are working to just have a single port in the body and from that point being able to reach any location,” says Zenati. “There is no technology that allows one to do that. The only one is the CardioArm.”