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Published: 06 December 2013

Surrey develops robot inspired by animal kingdom

An innovative medical robot, developed by Surrey as part of an EU consortium, has been showcased at the Science Museum during EU Robotics Week.

One of five EU-funded robotics projects to be celebrated during EU Robotics Week in November, the STIFF-FLOP robot represents a new generation of biologically-inspired soft surgical robotics. In addition to being named one of the top five robots currently being funded by the EU, it has also been on show at the Science Museum as part of a ‘Robot Safari UK’ exhibition.

The robot has been developed by the FP7 STIFF-FLOP consortium – of which the University of Surrey is a leading member – in a four-year project funded by a European Commission grant worth €7.35 million. Led by King’s College London, the consortium involves eleven partners.

STIFF-FLOP is a soft, flexible robotic arm aimed at improving ‘keyhole’ or minimally invasive surgery, with potential uses in urology, cardiology and gynaecology procedures. Combining the softness and flexibility of an elephant’s trunk with an octopus’s ability to find food by exploring small cavities in rocks, the arm can adjust its texture and stiffness to organs inside the human body – softening to get through narrow passages, for example, and stiffening again when needed to avoid damaging soft tissue.

The University of Surrey is a leading partner in the FP7 STIFF-FLOP project, which runs until the end of 2015. STAR (Surrey Technology for Autonomous Systems and Robotics) Lab is responsible for delivering innovative control, while the Department of Mechanical Engineering is providing materials technology.

Dr Chakravarthini Saaj, leader of the Surrey research team, said: “We are proud to have a major role in this project. With support from materials expert Dr T Lekakou, we have tested an innovative crimping technology to help us learn how an octopus controls its muscles in order to squeeze through narrow openings.

She added: “We hope that this surgical robot will pave the way for surgeons to safely and effectively intervene in cancers, prostate and heart conditions.”

The STIFF-FLOP robot was shown at the three-day ‘Robot Safari UK’ exhibition at the Science Museum alongside other robots based on biometrics, including a salamander-inspired robot designed to navigate dangerous environments, for example searching for survivors after a natural disaster.