Scientists at Sant'Anna School of Advanced Studies, Italy, have created a robotic arm that can bend, stretch and squeeze through cluttered environments.
The device has been particularly designed for surgical procedures to enable surgeons to easily access remote, confined regions of the body and, once there, manipulate soft organs without damaging them.
The device holds a key advantage over traditional surgical tools by way of its ability to quickly transform from a bending, flexible instrument into a stiff and rigid one.
The innovation is inspired by the eight arms of an octopus.
"The human body represents a highly challenging and non-structured environment, where the capabilities of the octopus can provide several advantages with respect to traditional surgical tools. Generally, the octopus has no rigid structures and can thus adapt the shape of its body to its environment. Taking advantage of the lack of rigid skeletal support, the eight highly flexible and long arms can twist, change their length, or bend in any direction at any point along the arm," said lead author of the study Dr Tommaso Ranzani.
The scientists conducted a number of characterization tests on the device, showing that it could bend to angles of up to 255° and stretch to up to 62% of its initial length.
The ability of the device to manipulate organs while surgical tasks are performed was successfully demonstrated in simulated scenarios where organs were represented by water-filled balloons.
"Traditional surgical tasks often require the use of multiple specialized instruments such as graspers, retractors, vision systems and dissectors to carry out a single procedure. We believe our device is the first step to creating an instrument that is able to perform all of these tasks, as well as reach remote areas of the body and safely support organs around the target site," Dr Ranzani said.