€7.35 million funding to develop for first flexible robotic instruments

Octopuses and robots will lead to new ways for surgeons to safely and effectively intervene in cancers, prostate and heart conditions.

The Centre for Robotics Research at King’s College London leads a consortium of European scientists and medical doctors aiming to create soft, flexible robotic tools to improve “keyhole” or minimally invasive surgery (MIS). King’s roboticists and clinicians at Guy’s and St Thomas Hospitals will work with European partners to research and create robotic technology that will enable doctors to carry out a far greater range of minimally invasive surgical procedures than previously possible, advancing interventions on cancer, prostate and the heart. The project has received €7.35 million funding from the European Union's 7th Framework Programme following a highly-competitive selection process. .

Keyhole surgery is commonly carried out with laparoscopic tools. Recently, surgeons have started employing a new tool, the da Vinci® Surgical System by Intuitive Surgical, whereby robot-assisted instruments are used to conduct minimally invasive or keyhole surgery. Despite a number of notable advances over current laparoscopic methods, such as reduced training time for the surgeons, ease of use of the robotised system and improved ergonomics for the surgeons, the da Vinci system continues to make use of rigid instruments severely restricting the areas they can reach during operations. Severing the physical interaction with the patient (something that laparoscopic surgeons experience routinely during their operations) results in a complete loss of haptic feedback to the robotic surgeon and is considered another disadvantage of the da Vinci® system.

The King’s team, led by roboticists Althoefer, Seneviratne and Nanayakkara and robotic surgeon, Dasgupta, takes inspiration from previous European research in the “Octopus” project, which studied the way octopuses interact with their environment, and how to make robots with these capabilites. The new project will use these ideas to create novel manipulation concepts based on flexible robot arms capable of controlling their stiffness along their body: When entering the body through a tiny incision point these arms will bend around organs and operate on parts of the body that could not be reached previously. The robot arm will stiffen once its tip has reached the point of intervention allowing the surgeon to carry out surgical procedures comfortably and accurately.

The restricted vision, the difficulty in handling the instruments, the lack of tactile perception and the limited working area are factors which add to the technical complexity of laparoscopic surgery.
The advanced technology of the instruments to be developed by the team in the Centre for Robotics Research will address all these restrictions and open up the option of more advanced procedures likely to advance cancer surgery and cardiac interventions, and possibly impact on other surgical procedures in the thorax, the brain and the spine.

Kaspar Althoefer, Professor of Robotics and Intelligent Systems, explains: ‘Actually, there are many operations that cannot be carried out with existing laparoscopic or robot-assisted minimally invasive surgery. In this EU project which is, I believe, appropriately named ‘STIFF-FLOP’, we will be using the octopus as a role model to create novel medical tools. I am confident that this approach will allow us to innovate and push the boundaries of current medical robotics technology and will provide solutions with real benefits for patients and surgical staff.’

Thrishantha Nanayakkara, Lecturer, and the technical manager of the consortium envisions innovating novel algorithms and hardware that can make a soft robot learn skilful manoeuvres by observing the demonstrations of an expert surgeon. The acquired autonomous skills of the robot will hopefully save time to finish a surgery while reducing the fatigue of the surgeon.

‘We want to achieve more than the da Vinci technique. We want to develop flexible manipulators that can go inside the body, be guided by the organs and carry out complex interventions inside the

The project is funded for four years and led by King’s involves collaboration with 11 other engineering and medical partners across Europe.



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