How Soft Robotics is changing the field of Medicine.
By Kaushal M
Ever wish you had a cool “personal healthcare companion” like Baymax who would scan symptoms, diagnose and treat your medical condition (and also turn into a sick flying machine to go on epic adventures!) Surely, you would have liked this friendly humanoid soft robot and wondered about getting a chance to experience it in the future or maybe even developing it! But where do we currently stand with soft robotics and its application to medicine in particular?
What is soft robotics?
Before we delve into the details, we must understand what soft robotics is. Soft robotics is a subclass of bio inspired robotics targeted to mimic soft muscles and tissues for improving control and movement of the robot. The core concept of it is to convert a robot’s hard links into more flexible and soft designs with control over their rigidity, in order to achieve better dexterity, innumerable degrees of freedom and a more natural & fluidic motion of the robot. The primary inspiration behind this has been the way octopus moves and interacts with its surroundings. Along with this, the biology of caterpillars, snakes and birds has also heavily motivated some aspects of soft robotics.
Due to the characteristic nature of the soft robots, they could be applied with ease in tasks like gripping different objects or navigating cramped, complex, hazardous & variable environments like pipes, cable networks, accident debris and mines. Most soft robots are designed to work pneumatically, thereby reducing the risk of mishaps like sparking due circuit failure. With the rise of human-machine interaction, soft robots are especially considered for their safe design and are hence gaining traction in research.
Application of robotics to medicine
Robotics has innumerable applications in the medical field. Deploying autonomous robots for sanitation, monitoring patients, performing tests or diagnosing contagious diseases are a few use-cases in the medical area. Moxi, an intelligent assistive robot developed by Diligent Robotics is an example of deploying robots for healthcare.
The most recent boom in the robotics in healthcare domain has been robotic surgery. Da Vinci Surgery Systems is a leader in this industry delivering robotic-assisted minimally invasive surgery. Developments in the fields of tactile internet and cyber-physical systems have also enhanced remote robotic surgery. This is particularly exciting because it enables the possibility of carrying out telesurgeries from and at anywhere in the world (or even space!)
Soft robotics in medicine
Owing to the flexibility and freedom, soft robotics is promising in both invasive and non-invasive surgery. Most existing surgery robots are robotic arms which face challenges in limited motion, system complexity, reaching critical organs, grasping tools & equipment and safety & psychological assurance of the patient. Soft robots can gently grab various objects of any shape. They are made from tubes and artificial muscles which let them travel non-invasively through blood vessels, respiratory and digestive tracts. They can also fulfill the need for gentle and careful actions during operations. There are many startups in the soft robotic space that aim to build autonomous and collaborative robots for healthcare.
Another ground-breaking technology worth mentioning is the use of micromotors and nanomotors for targeted drug delivery. A nanomotor is a nanodevice that converts energy into motion like an electric motor. These nanomotors or biological nanomotors engineered using proteins can be controlled thermally or using electric & magnetic fields to deliver drugs. The future work in this field has great potential where micro or nanomotors can aid in surgery of critical organs or attack specific harmful cells.
Future of soft robotics in medicine
Coming back to our beloved Baymax, we must acknowledge that although the robot is a fictional character, there are many aspects about it that could be practically implemented in the future. Professor Chris Atkenson, professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) and an expert in soft robotics has been the pioneer in the effort of creating a Baymax in real life. The future of soft robotics is truly exciting and promising.
Soft intelligent exosuits with multiple arms could be worn by surgeons for assisted surgery. This could eliminate human error and reduce risk of infection. Haptics play a crucial role as feedback to the surgeon. Current robotic surgeries are carried out using only visual feedback. Development
of electronic robotic skin for tactile perception could give this key feedback to the surgeon or operator. Tube-like soft robots could play a revolutionary role in various open, bypass or other types of heart surgeries where maneuvering through various valves and blood vessels is necessary. The material used in these robots or nanobots could be organic or even made from stem cells of the patient to make them more sterile and safe. Soft robotic sensors can also be used to gather critical patient data.
Really, the sheer enormity of applications and challenges in robotics is mind-blowing. Therefore, as budding engineers and innovators keen about research and development in robotics, it is important for us to look around to solve challenging problems and seek inspiration to come up with innovative solutions to solve them using robotics. The evolution of soft and bio-inspired robotics has been one such branch sprouting and growing long on the vast tree called robotics.
This article was published as a part of IEEE BITS Goa Student Branch’s Technical Writing Competition. The Article was the winning article, and hence went on to land on our medium page.
Credit for the article goes to the writer Kaushal M.