Robotic caterpillar

By Ann Griswold • Published: July 12th, 2007
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

Doctors in the not-so-distant future may rely on a robotic caterpillar to repair broken hearts. The mechanical device… nicknamed HeartLander… promises to make life easier for the more than half a million patients who undergo open-heart surgery each year.

The robotic caterpillar is long and skinny, with two sticky feet that adhere to the surface of the heart using a gentle vacuum. The HeartLander could eventually streamline the process of major cardiac surgery by eliminating the need for large incisions and heart-stopping procedures. The robot enters the chest through a tiny keyhole incision and works while the heart is still beating. And it’s fast… the critter can scuttle across the heart’s surface at over eighteen centimeters a minute.

Surgeons monitor the HeartLander’s movement using a magnetic tracker and use a joystick to tell it where to go. It moves toward the site of repair like an inchworm, using push-and-pull wires connected to the outside of the patient’s body.

A prototype of the HeartLander, developed by scientists at Carnegie Mellon University, has been used successfully to perform injections and install pacemakers in live pigs.

Scientists hope to use the mechanical caterpillar in the future to deliver medications to hard-to-reach areas of the heart. The robot can also be used to repair damaged tissues and attach medical devices.

But so far, the main beneficiary has been a large Yorkshire pig. The scientists hope to test the HeartLander on sheep next, whose hearts more closely resemble humans.