The Healing Serpent

Another iTechnology breakthrough has entered our iWorld this month. But this one does not join the ranks of those well-known iWants like the iPod, iMac, and iPhone.

All hail the i-Snake, which is not from the Apple stable of innovations. It probably owes its title more to Caduceus, the ancient symbol of the healer that depicts a winged staff with two serpents twined around it, and to I Robot, the 1950s collection of science fiction short stories by Isaac Asimov.

A research team at Imperial College London are developing a flexible surgical robot named i-Snake which they maintain will revolutionise keyhole surgery. The idea is to use i-Snake with its long tubular body containing miniature motors, sensors, and imaging tools for heart bypass surgery and other minimally invasive techniques. The goal is to cut patient recovery times, reduce risk of post-operative infection, and in the long term, save hospitals considerable sums of money by reducing hospital stay times.

The instrument could even allow future heart bypass operations to be performed without the need for open-heart surgery. That’s because I-Snake would be able to access the heart via the patient’s vascular system.

Another of i-Snake’s modus operandi would be to advance the wonderfully named Natural Orifice Transluminal Endoscopic Surgery (Notes) techniques, or in other words, operating through natural orifices or cavities, such as the bowel. But let’s leave that alone for now.

Unquestionably, i-Snake is a clever innovation that will not only provide surgical breakthroughs, but will also find applications in other very hard to reach areas that require accurate and delicate work, such as jet engines and nuclear reactors. The idea of robotic snake-like apparatus has been around for some time and some important development work can be deservedly attributed to NASA’s space program, where aptly named snakebots were developed for space mission work. They contained a central control IC that worked in conjunction with microcontrollers, which controlled the movement of the robotic device. Sensors were incorporated to indicate how much pressure the snakebot was being subjected to by external forces in certain applications.

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