Technion researchers develop robot to travel inside spinal column
Jerusalem Post, October 30, 2006
Reality is finally catching up with the 1966 science fiction movie Fantastic Voyage; Technion-Israel Institute of Technology researchers have found a way to propel an as yet-undeveloped tiny swimming robot through the spinal fluid between the vertebrae in the human body. Sending a robot through the arteries is about three years in the future, the developers predicted.
The minuscule robot’s swimming mechanism is especially suited for movement in water or other clear fluids. When the swimming mechanism is attached to a tiny camera, it will be able to travel inside the spinal column to the target area and broadcast video images or photos. The robot itself is still under development at the Technion.
The robot’s propulsion is called a “breakthrough” by its inventors. The mechanism was developed by a mechanical engineering faculty team headed by Prof. Moshe Shaham for the doctorate of Gabor Kosha. Shaham has already developed a tiny robot that assists in back surgery. Manufactured by Mazor Surgical Technology in Caesarea and Atlanta, it is currently used in three hospitals in Israel and 10 in the US.
“We already have a propelling model 15 millimeters in length,” Shoham told The Jerusalem Post. “The robot to which it is attached has not yet been developed, but we completed the payload stage after three years of work.”
He said the team began with the spinal column because spinal fluid is clear and flows more slowly than the red blood in arteries up to two millimeters in diameter.
Shoham and Kosha were assisted by Dr. Menashe Zaaroor of Haifa’s Rambam Medical Center and more recently by master’s degree student Tzipi Neubach.
“As part of the project, we developed a locational sensor that will find the place and depth of the endoscope’s penetration into the spinal column and its angle of movement,” said Kosha. “We are now thinking about the next-generation endoscope that will swim by itself. It will be a swimming robot with two activators – swimming tails – that will push it. It will have an energy source plus a camera in its head that will broadcast the images to the doctor outside.”
“This is a unique swimming mechanism suited to tiny proportions, and because it is operated by piezo-electronic crystals, its need for electricity is very small,” Shoham said. “In about two years, we hope a robot we are working on will be able to take a biopsy and release drugs locally for treatment.”
For several years, the Israeli company Given Imaging has been marketing the Pillcam, a capsule that is swallowed and passes through the esophagus to the small intestine. An experimental model is being developed for the large intestine as well. But since the gastrointestinal system has peristalsis, a natural muscular motion that pushes food and waste (as well as the capsule) along, the Pillcam does not need a propulsion mechanism, Shoham said.
The Technion’s robot-propeller invention has already been presented at international conferences, including the International Conference on Robotics and Information in Europe a year ago and the Bio-Rob Conference in Pisa, Italy, four months ago. It has aroused much interest among physicians.
Researchers at the Harvard University School of Medicine in Boston have said they want to collaborate with the Technion researchers on development and use. It will take another few years for the complete product to be perfected, the Technion developers say. “But we believe that in the future, there will be tiny robots that will remain in our bodies and navigate to problematic points. This is a step up in miniaturization of invasive devices into the human body.”