Imagine flexible, robotic arms crawling through the organ-packed spaces of a patient’s body. The tools deftly navigate through the intestines to reach a section of colon. The arms then gradually stiffen and, using a gripper tip, perform delicate surgery. That’s the vision, complete with prototype, inspired by octopus limbs and executed by a European group of engineering, neurobiology and robotic experts.
The project, the ponderously titled “STIFFness controllable Flexible and Learn-able Manipulator for surgical OPerations” consortium, is generally known by its more creative acronym STIFF-FLOP. As the long-form name suggests, the consortium is building robotic arms that would work together to perform minimally invasive surgeries by making just one entry incision or approaching organs through natural orifices. The arms would be flexible and long enough to navigate complex anatomy, yet stiff enough to pull off an intricate procedure. But the prototype had an issue: How would the arms avoid tangling or grabbing the wrong organs?
Octopuses, with their eight wavy limbs, had the answer. Unlike human brains, which let us know if we’re crossing our arms, octopus brains lack similar motor neuron maps. Yet, amazingly, their flexible, sucker-covered arms hardly ever end up in a tangled mess.