This project will advance fundamental knowledge for modeling, control, and sensing of soft-backboned continuum robots for surgical applications. The snake-like or tentacle-like versatility of these robots provides enhanced dexterity. Their compliant nature makes them especially well-suited for medical interventions, because they safely conform to the geometry of the body rather than damaging surrounding tissue. The modeling and control approach is innovative because it treats the robot and surrounding tissue as an interconnected system, and applies mathematical techniques developed for deformable structures that may take an infinite number of possible shapes. Inevitable uncertainties about the geometry and mechanical properties of biological tissue are rigorously addressed using probabilistic on-line, model-free learning. Movement of the robot inside the body is monitored using a linear array of millimeter-scale passive radio antennas, similar to the RFID tags found in retail stores. Different versions of these sensors will be explored, variously capable of locating contact points, measuring interface forces, and estimating the shape of the robot. The project also presents a framework for development and validation of surgical robots, including a new systematic classification of surgical tasks from a robotic perspective. This interdisciplinary effort combines control theory, wireless communication, human-centered design, and medicine to address a critical need for consistent high-quality and accessible healthcare in the US. Project activities will help broaden the participation of underrepresented groups in research and positively impact engineering education with hands-on engineering demonstrations, practices, and lessons.

The project vision is a coordinated design of continuum robots, sensors, environment testbeds, and validation metrics for medical applications with their complex tissue environments. The research team will (i) design scalable and online model-based and model-free adaptive control approaches that consider the robot-and-tissue environment as a tightly coupled, identifiable, and controllable system, (ii) develop wireless sensing technology for continuum robot tracking, shape sensing, force estimation, and communication channels that meet the constraints of medical continuum robots and environments, and (iii) build a comprehensive set of canonical medical robot and environment validation platforms, and a set of relevant metrics for quantitative comparisons of future medical continuum robot technologies. These contributions offer a generalized approach for robust implementation of medical continuum robots in new tissue environments. It has broad applicability across different robot hardware and clinical tasks.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Emerging Frontiers (EF)
Standard Grant (Standard)
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Jordan Berg
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University of California San Diego
La Jolla
United States
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