STIFF-FLOP will focus on Challenge 2 – Cognitive systems and robotics. In minimally invasive surgery, tools go through narrow openings and manipulate soft organs that can move, deform, or change stiffness. There are limitations on modern laparoscopic and robot-assisted surgical systems due to restricted access through Trocar ports, lack of haptic feedback, and difficulties with rigid robot tools operating inside a confined space filled with organs. Also, many control algorithms suffer from stability problems in the presence of unexpected conditions. Yet biological “manipulators”, like the octopus arm and the elephant trunk, can manipulate objects while controlling the stiffness of selected body parts and being inherently compliant when interacting with objects.

We will create a soft robotic arm that can squeeze through a standard 12mm diameter Trocar-port, reconfigure itself and stiffen by hydrostatic actuation to perform compliant force control tasks while facing unexpected situations. We will address the complete system: the design and fabrication of the soft manipulator with a gripper at the tip, distributed sensing, biologically inspired actuation and control architectures, learning and developing cognition through interaction with a human instructor, and manipulating soft objects in complex and uncertain environments.

We will extend the state of the art in embodied cognition through real world experiments on manipulators that can selectively control their stiffness and degrees of freedom morphing from a complete soft state to an articulated one. This variable stiffness robot arm will have many applications in MIS including NOTES (Natural Orifices Translumenal Endoscopic Surgery). With the support of KARL STORZ ENDOSCOPES, the European Association for Endoscopic Surgery (EAES) and three internationally-leading medical institutes (see support letters), we will test the soft arm in a minimally invasive robotic surgery application to demonstrate its feasibility.

This collaborative project is funded by the European Commission within the Seventh Framework Programme FP7 under grant agreement 287728.