New Flexible Robots Could Assist with Surgeries


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A future in which robots can maneuver with high agility, dexterity and precision is not too far away. These flexible robots could one day assist with surgeries, navigate through tight, complex environments with ease, and be used to develop prosthetics that are capable of natural movement.

The design and intelligent control of flexible and surgical robotics are the specialties of Michael Yip, one of the new faculty joining the Jacobs School of Engineering at the University of California, San Diego. Yip received his Ph.D from the Department of Bioengineering at Stanford University. He will arrive in November as an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at UC San Diego and will direct the new Advanced Robotics and Controls Laboratory (ARCLab). His research involves developing advanced algorithms that can control flexible robotics to move with high agility and dexterity. He also designs novel robotic systems that mimic the natural motion of animal and human bodies.

“Intelligent control of flexible robotics is a challenge that’s been plaguing the field. To make flexible robotics work effectively in places like the human body, we need to figure out how to control the robotics to crawl through constrained spaces and do manipulations without causing damage to their surroundings or to themselves,” said Yip.

This type of control is important in applications like robot-assisted surgery. For example, a surgeon could control a long, thin, flexible robotic device to snake its way through a patient’s body and perform surgery with high precision and safety. Use of these robotic devices could also offer less invasive surgical procedures.

“Rather than dissecting the patient’s body, a surgeon could just make one or two small incisions on the body to insert these surgical robotic devices,” said Yip.

Controlling flexible robotics to maneuver through tight spaces — in a minimally invasive manner — is also useful in industrial applications including manufacturing, inspection and assembly. For example, flexible robotics could be used to inspect the wiring in an airplane wing or do repairs deep within a car engine without having to disassemble any major machinery.

Yip also works on making artificial muscles and actuators that can mimic biological muscle performance. Previously, he worked as a Walt Disney Imagineer within the Disney Research division, where he developed a technology for creating low-cost artificial muscles using conductive sewing thread. These synthetic muscles could contract and expand just like human muscles and were used to make life-like animatronic hands and arms. The artificial muscles were featured this summer in Popular Mechanics and Gizmodo.

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