Would You Let A Tiny Robot Swim Through Your Body?

Robotic capability is developing at a speed that would astonish even the prophetic sci-fi author Isaac Asimov. Now we have robots that can jump high obstacles in the battlefield or crawl or swim in the human body, the latter being reminiscent of the theme of Asimov’s Fantastic Voyage novel back in the 1960s.

But back to that jumping robot. This small rectangular droid spends most of its time crawling around on four wheels, but it also has a “grasshopper” style leg that is piston activated and will hoist the robot over a 7-metre obstacle. The Precision Urban Hopper—as it’s called—can be guided by GPS and is already demonstrating abilities that will earn it a place with the military where it could save the lives of many soldiers

Whereas the concept of the Hopper robot is reasonably easy to grasp, some of the robotics that will soon find their way into the medical world are mind-bogglingly difficult to come to terms with. One conceptual idea being developed is to release tiny robots in the body via natural orifices. These robots would travel around the body to the problem area and from there help with surgical procedures.

If that sounds all a little too "Fantastic Voyage" for you to handle, consider the fact that prototypes already exist that can crawl and swim within the human body. ARES (Assembling Reconfigurable Endoluminal Surgical System) has been developed by Scuola Superiore Sant'Anna, Italy. This particular project has received endorsements and support from the European Commission. With this system, the patient requiring treatment will have to swallow about a dozen robotic components that will then self assemble within the body.

In many procedures surgeons are already using robots such as FreeHand, a robotic camera controller. Traditionally an assistant has moved the laparoscopic camera, but the FreeHand system lets the surgeon control the camera themselves via head movements and a foot pedal (definitely no rock music to be played in the operating theatre). Then there is the 'Da Vinci Robot' which is mainly used to perform tumour removals, as well as gastro and neurological operations.

But despite all this remarkable progress there are still some difficulties that have to be overcome. One of those is sense of touch. Surgeons agree that when using their own hands they get feelings of tension and pressure, or whether the object they are feeling is hard or soft. It is this tactile feedback that often helps with certain surgical decisions that have to be made at the operating table.

So, electronic technology still has some very challenging areas of application design to resolve in robotic technology. Achieving these solutions will inevitable cost money, which in turn will raise the amount of funding required by health organisations if they want to get their hands on this technology.

A lot of people recall Isaac Asimov’s Laws of Robotics:


  • A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  • A robot must obey any orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  • A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Maybe it’s worth adding: “A Robot must avoid harming hospital budgets.”


TAGS: Robotics
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