Thursday, September 26, 2019

$2 million NSF grant to create intelligent, flexible surgical robots

Professor Michael Yip, principal investigator for the grant.
Photo by David Baillot
Electrical and mechanical engineers at UC San Diego received a $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to develop flexible snake-like robots outfitted with smart skin and embedded actuators for use in medical procedures. These robots will enable safer and more efficient endoscopic and intravascular procedures for a wide range of ailments, from cardiovascular disease to cancer.

Flexible, invertebrate-like robots capable of twisting through the tiny, curvy spaces of the human anatomy are called continuum robots.  While versions of these machines exist for surgical applications today, it is difficult for doctors to know where exactly they are in the body during a procedure because the robots can be up to four feet long and lack sensors to detect their position. Furthermore, surgical robots that are currently FDA-approved lack the dexterity and flexibility needed to access spaces deep within the body. This makes it often impossible to localize, reach, and treat diseases, reducing the advantages the precision robotics provide to surgery.

To address these challenges, the researchers plan to create robots that leverage machine learning to teach themselves how to access challenging anatomy, while increasing their physical dexterity by embedding new technologies for actuation and sensing. They plan to develop a thin skin embedded with arrays of antennas, capable of tasks like wirelessly tracking the robot’s position in the human body, making it easier for doctors and surgeons to manipulate it when and where needed.

“Our goal is to develop safe, robotic surgical systems that not only augment what doctors can do, but create new procedures they would have never been able to perform by hand,” said Michael Yip, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at UC San Diego and principle investigator for the grant. “That is the advantage that continuum robots bring – they are an extension of the surgeon’s hands that can reach and perform surgical tasks that otherwise would be impossible to do”.

The researchers also plan to develop new modeling, control and validation platforms to overcome challenges for sensing, testing, and reproducibility in flexible medical robots. Their modeling platform would consider the robot and the human tissue environment as a tightly coupled and controllable system, instead of two distinct entities.

Since there are currently no off-the-shelf hardware solutions for either the robot or biologically relevant testing environments, there are no standardized performance metrics for comparison and validation across this field. This has made it difficult for researchers and industry to objectively determine how much progress is being made with new developments in surgical robotic platforms. The team aims to create these validation metrics, which will have a significant impact on the medical robotics research community by driving down barriers to robotics research and development as well as offering templates and common validation strategies to improve the communication, interpretation, and reproducibility of new research in the field.

The project is a multidisciplinary collaboration including electrical and computer engineering Professors Dinesh Bharadia and Yip, and mechanical engineering Professors Miroslav Krstic and Tania Morimoto.