by Bryan Bergeron, Editor
I recently attended a review of robotics research in New England’s universities which included a tour of seven major robotics labs at MIT. Given that academia is typically a year or two ahead of what’s deployable by the military and several years ahead of what may be practical in the marketplace, the future looks promising.
Highlights of the meeting included surgical navigation and surgical robotics — two nascent technologies in medicine. You’ve probably heard of the Da Vinci surgical robot (http://www.davincisurgery.com) which is increasingly used in specific elective surgeries. The Da Vinci is a remote-controlled robot laden with sensors, motors, and minute effectors, but without autonomous functions. Benefits of the system include shorter hospital stays — an important factor in containing medical costs. Pending clearance by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), several other robotic platforms should be coming on line shortly.
Surgical Navigation systems such as the Medtronics StealthStation (http://www.medtronicnavigation.com) are also gaining in popularity. These systems use optical and RF tracking to enable a surgeon to visualize the position of surgical instruments relative to a patient’s anatomy in 3D space. The advantage of surgical navigation systems is that they enable doctors to see the operating field when the instruments and tissues are hidden from the naked eye. Properly employed, these systems can reduce surgical errors, and enable a surgeon to carry out a procedure with a relatively small incision.
One of the more interesting robotic technologies on the horizon was soft machines, such as those under development at the Tufts Biomimetic Devices Laboratory (ase.tufts.edu/bdl). While most of the robotics world is working with and thinking about traditional hardware sensors and effectors, researchers in this lab are working with elastomers, fluids, artificial muscles, and nanosensors.
Instead of a human or lobster, the biomimetic model for much of the work on soft robots is a soft, low-density, tactile-sensitive caterpillar. The potential advantages of a lightweight, soft robot over a heavy robot with a rigid skeleton or exoskeleton include the ability to climb textured surfaces, crawl along ropes and wires, and burrow into winding, confined spaces. Imagine a few dozen soft robots released into the rubble following a devastating earthquake. Soft rescue bots should have a much easier time snaking toward victims relative to traditional robots constrained by stiff, physical bulk.
Soft-bodied robots have obvious military applications, as well. Over a year ago, the DOD offered a small business innovation research (SBIR) grant for the purpose of developing a soft robot that could push itself through a crack in a barrier and reassemble intact on the other side. The endpoint of this R&D effort was an ordnance delivery system that could squeeze through a crack and deliver its payload on the other side of a wall. I’ve seen prototypes of soft delivery vehicles, including a multi-chambered sphere controlled by pneumatics. Pressurizing some of the elastic chambers while reducing pressure in others resulted in steerable movement. There was no room for a significant payload, however.
So, what’s my take-away from the meeting? I’m certain that one day you’ll be able to walk to your corner drugstore and have an autonomous robotic surgeon sew up a laceration, lance a blister, or remove an ingrown toenail. I’m also confident that the military will perfect soft robotic weapons. The underlying challenge in these and other robotics R&D projects is economics. Regardless of the state of the economy, there will always be competition from traditional technologies, the need for a positive return on investment, and the need for visionaries to champion technologies to the forefront.
So, step up and let’s get going. SV