Scientists develop 'Fantastic Voyage'-like robot sub

Has unique ability to "crawl" through tubes with the width of human veins and arteries.

June 26, 2007 00:34
3 minute read.
Scientists develop 'Fantastic Voyage'-like robot sub

sub robot 298. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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Israeli scientists have actually created the imaginary technology depicted by the 1966 science fiction movie Fantastic Voyage, in which a submarine is reduced to microscopic size, injected into the bloodstream and able to travel through the body to provide medical treatment. A tiny "submarine" robot has been designed by Dr. Nir Schwalb of the Judea and Samaria College in Ariel and Oded Solomon of the mechanical engineering department of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. They say it has the unique ability to "crawl" through tubes with the width of human veins and arteries, even going against the flow of blood at the speed in which it passes through blood vessels. It is too early to know what medical uses the robot will have, but they suggest the possibility of being involved in brachytherapy, in which cancer patients are exposed to short-distance adiotherapy from a source placed inside or next to the area requiring treatment. Brachytherapy is commonly used to treat localized prostate cancer and cancers of the head and neck. In addition, numerous robots could be used simultaneously to deal with a large number of metastases (malignant tumors spread through the body). The researchers stress that the project is an "interesting development, but it has a long way to go before it is used in medicine." Solomon says that the tiny robot could be controlled for an unlimited amount of time to carry out any necessary medical procedure. The power source is an external magnetic field created near the patient that does not cause any harm to humans but supplies an endless supply of power for it to function. The robot's special structure enables it to move while being controlled by the operator using the magnetic field. The researchers noted that scientists at Kyoto University in Japan are developing a robot to travel independently in the human body. However, they said that its size of one centimeter in diameter would not allow it to pass into human veins. The Israeli robot, however, was only one millimeter in diameter, they said. "Medicine is going to be much more focused, and the need to reach an exact target will only increase," say the Israeli researchers. "The academic world is trying to create a robot that will be tiny enough to pass through the body and at the same time have navigational abilities for performing complex medical tasks," added Prof. Moshe Shaham of the Technion, who is a participant in the research. Shaham has already developed a robot for the Mazor company that today is used in many hospitals around the world for performing spinal surgery. The Haifa/Ariel robot is built as a central structure with tiny arms that allow it to grab onto the insides of tubes. Any movement makes it possible to advance a bit, and its unique hair-like structure allows travel through many sizes of tubes. Blood vessels in the body are not uniform in their diameter size, so it is important that the robot can "hold on" inside various sized tubes, they said. In Fantastic Voyage, a secret agent is recruited by a top-secret organization to join the crew of a submarine called Proteus. The crew and submarine are reduced to microscopic size and injected into the bloodstream of scientist Jan Benes, who defects to the West and goes into a coma after suffering a surgically inaccessible blood clot. They must reach the brain with a laser to melt the clot within an hour or the miniaturization effect will wear off. However, the voyage is undermined by one of the crew who is a saboteur and is prepared to risk everything to stop the mission.

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