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Miniature robotic joints could conduct your future surgery

Scientists have developed a highly efficient, wireless micro-robotic joint, which could be used in a wide range of medical applications.

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Micro-robots could have an important place in our future healthcare systems. Robotics has already opened a pathway to minimally invasive surgery, such as the removal of a brain tumour through a small hole in the head. The success of this surgery relies on the motion, stability and control system of robotic joints. In the EU-funded UWIPOM2 project, researchers have been working to shrink this technology down to the micron level, developing miniature micro-robotic joints for surgery and other medical interventions. “UWIPOM2 will constitute the key element for the foundation of micro-robotics technology for health applications but also for other fields such as nano-satellites, security, mechatronics or microelectronics,” explains Efrén Díez Jiménez, professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Alcalá in Spain and UWIPOM2 project coordinator. “Currently available technology exists for micro-sensor, micro-communications and even for micro-scoping, but the final component that can open a full field of micro-robotics will be UWIPOM2 micro-robotic joints,” Díez Jiménez adds.

A wireless-powered micro-robotic joint

The new technology, UWIPOM2, works like a macroscopic robotic joint, with a motor and gearhead, and composed of magnets and an electric yoke to produce magnetism. The whole system is powered through electromagnetic waves, which gives total autonomy to any tool or micro-robot it activates. “The robotic joint is new itself as a device, but all the individual components are a significant step forward beyond state of the art,” says Díez Jiménez. “Before this project, no one could manufacture such small parts and, of course, no one could even try to assemble them.” The UWIPOM2 micromotor offers torque density similar to macroscopic motors, and is the thinnest motor in history, which means it can be integrated into ultra-thin catheters for use in minimally invasive surgical interventions. The motor proved to be durable over time, with a life of more than 70 hours of operation at low speed, and an ability to move masses even greater than its own weight, to rotate at very fast speeds (27 000 revolutions per minute) and to withstand and dissipate internal heat efficiently. “With UWIPOM2 microactuators and micromotors, it will be possible to create steerable catheters, ultra-precious laser ablation systems, IVUS systems and abrasion systems, among other possible medical applications,” notes Díez Jiménez.

Testing the device

Through the UWIPOM2 project, the team designed, fabricated and tested micrometre-sized actuators and motors with the capability to operate in fluid environments as found inside the body. “It is important to highlight that each of the developments necessary to reach this final goal has been a huge technical challenge,” says Díez Jiménez. As this technology is developed further and one day introduced into healthcare systems, surgeons will have much more precise tools at their disposal and won’t be so dependent on their manual dexterity when performing delicate interventions. “This could even allow high-precision interventions that could be done remotely without the need for the presence of a specialist surgeon in the operating room,” remarks Díez Jiménez. “In addition, by making the tools more mobile, it will be possible to intervene and perform operations in places that are difficult to access and for which there is currently no solution.”


UWIPOM2, robot, joint, surgery, operations, wireless, actuators

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