Robotic Drones for Detecting Cancer - a Moonshot Project
Tom Spendlove posted on May 13, 2015 |

Fernando Avila is working on radical new solutions to the problem of gastro-intestinal cancer. He says that every year there are 2.8million cases diagnosed worldwide and 1.8million patients die. Early detection will drastically lower the number of deaths, and Avila says that finding pre cancerous lesions in bowel cancer patients can give a ninety percent chance of survival after five years. Currently only forty percent of cases are found in the early stages.


Endoscopic robotic drones for gut cancer detection

Colonoscopies are the current method of intestinal cancer detection, but requires a specialized technician using highly specialized equipment. The detection rate from colonoscopies is seventy percent but is better at finding large protruding lesions instead of the flat recessed lesions inside the colon. He likens finding these lesions to asking a general to finding a heavily camouflaged soldier.

Avila's moonshot idea is to send multiple drones inside the colon with the endoscopy to find lesions. His SolveForX talk "Endscopic robotic drones for gut cancer detection" outlines his big ideas and the radical solution he has for detecting cancer. The drones are being developed by the Imperial College in London along with The Hamlyn Center for Robotic Surgery.

The endoscope acts as a transportation way for the drones, who reach the end of the scope and do a three hundred sixty degree scan. Moving down the length of the scope a full three dimensional model of the colon can be simulated.

Prototypes have been built with optical sensors that cascade out in eight directions radially. Tendons are designed to rotate and move radially based on movement up and down the tube axis. The goal was to use simple proven mechanisms and apply them to a soft touch repeatable solution.

The device has three basic functions: deployment of the probe from the scope, rotation of the eight sensors for scanning, and retraction for removal. Avila's current challenges are taking his large scale hard components and shrinking them down into a soft compact form safe for human use.

Fernando is a great speaker with the right mix of technical knowledge and childlike excitement. He shows a final state vision of what he wants the data simulation to show at the end of his talk and is well aware of the work it will take to get there and the current gaps between his technology and the endpoint.


Endoscopic robotic drones for gut cancer detection

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