Millions of colonoscopies are performed every year to spot cancer as early as possible. The routine nature of these procedures and the constant need for them to be performed has led researchers at University of Colorado Boulder to develop a robotic tank-like device for traversing, imaging, and even biopsying the colon and maybe even much of the rest of the GI tract.
There are ingestable electronic pills that can take pictures of the gut as they travel from one end of the digestive system to the other. However, these are fairly limited devices and can’t pause to look over a suspect lesion, move to change their point of view, or take a biopsy.
The new device out of CU Boulder, called Endoculus, has four sets of tank-like treads that let the robot move along the slippery and rugged three-dimensional nature of the colon. An air pump is used to inflate the colon and a water pump to clean the scene. LED lights on the front illuminate the interior and an on-board biopsy snare allows the device to take samples of polyps.
The novel mechanical treads were particularly important to get right. “You have to forget about everything you know from a locomotion standpoint because driving around inside the body is very different than driving around in a car,” said Mark Rentschler, associate professor of mechanical engineering at CU Boulder. “The environment is highly deformable. It’s very slick. There are sharp peaks that you have to go over.”