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Worms, slugs inspire robotic devices

Drawing on an understanding of how slugs, leeches and earthworms traverse their environments and grasp objects, a team of Case Western Reserve University biologists and engineers has developed two flexible robotic devices that could make invasive medical procedures such as colonoscopies safer for patients and easier for doctors to administer.

The researchers from Case's departments of biology, mechanical and aerospace engineering and electrical engineering and computer science have obtained a patent for a new endoscopic device and a provisional patent for a gripping device that may have industrial as well as medical uses.

"We have taken our understanding of biology to use it as an inspiration for novel robotic devices," said Hillel Chiel, Case professor of biology and principal investigator on the project. "By taking nature seriously, we have created novel, flexible and adaptive devices that will be useful for a variety of applications."

The endoscopic device, constructed of three muscle-like actuators made of latex bladders and surrounded by nylon mesh, looks like a nine-inch long hollow worm. The actuator segments, inflating and contracting in sequence, propel the device forward, mimicking the undulating movement of slugs and worms. "This device can literally worm its way into complicated places or into curving tubing such as the colon," Chiel explained.

The current prototype can be added to existing medical endoscopes. Eventually, the device may be miniaturized and equipped with sensors that enable it to work autonomously and self propelling. According to Chiel, the research team will also be working to make the device more flexible, imitating the reflex responses of slugs and worms to changes in their environment. As a result of these refinements, the new device could reduce discomfort and the risk of injury among patients undergoing invasive medical tests, and thereby increase compliance with doctors' orders to have such tests performed.
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Contact: Susan Griffith
susan.griffith@case.edu
216-368-1004
Case Western Reserve University
17-Feb-2005


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