What's metal, slithers, and may just save your life after a heart attack? The tiny snake-like robots that operating rooms across the country will soon employ to crawl inside your body and perform life-saving surgeries. Here's what you should know about your doctor's new favorite tool:
What do these robots do?
Doctors will use the snakebots to perform routine surgeries on hearts and excise prostate tumors, says Sebastian Anthony at ExtremeTech. The diminuitive machines are equipped with a variety of surgical tools, including tiny cameras, scissors, and forceps. Surgeons make a small keyhole incision, insert the snake, then use a tethered remote to guide the squirmy bot to where it needs to go. (Watch a video below.) The robot has been successfully tested on pigs, and is now making the leap to human anatomy.
How big are they?
The snakebot, which has 102 moveable joints, has a head with a diameter smaller than a dime, allowing it to squeeze through extremely small spaces that human hands could never go.
Why use these things?
The robot's small size makes invasive surgeries cleaner and faster. Rather than having to open up a patient's chest for heart surgery, surgeons can simply make a tiny cut. In theory, this reduces a patient's overall recovery time, saving hospitals and insurance companies money on overhead. "It's like the ability to have little hands inside the patients, as if the surgeon had been shrunken and was working on the heart valve," Dr. Michael Argenziano, a New York heart surgeon, tells the Associated Press. "The robot is a tool. It is no different in that sense than a scalpel."
Wireless controls seem inevitable, and "it's only a matter of time until [snakebots] become autonomous [and] small enough to wiggle around your" blood vessels, says Anthony. With any luck, one day these machines will test chemicals or blood within the body, and analyze the electrical connections of nerves. They'll continue to shrink and get more sophisticated, until tiny "nanobots" roam the system and solve problems on their own. That sounds fine, says Dan Nosowitz at Popular Science. "Now we just have to get past the Indiana-Jones-ooginess of a tiny robosnake squirming its way through our bodies."