IEEE Transactions on Robotics, 31 (6), pp. 1261-1280, 2015
In this paper, we describe the state of the art in continuum robot manipulators and systems intended for application to interventional medicine. Inspired by biological trunks, tentacles, and snakes, continuum robot designs can traverse confined spaces, manipulate objects in complex environments, and conform to curvilinear paths in space. In addition, many designs offer inherent structural compliance and ease of miniaturization. After decades of pioneering research, a host of designs have now been investigated and have demonstrated capabilities beyond the scope of conventional rigid-link robots. Recently, we have seen increasing efforts aimed at leveraging these qualities to improve the frontiers of minimally invasive surgical interventions. Several concepts have now been commercialized, which are inspiring and enabling a current paradigm shift in surgical approaches toward flexible access routes, e.g., through natural orifices such as the nose. In this paper, we provide an overview of the current state of this field from the perspectives of both robotics science and medical applications. We discuss relevant research in design, modeling, control, and sensing for continuum manipulators, and we highlight how this work is being used to build robotic systems for specific surgical procedures. We provide perspective for the future by discussing current limitations, open questions, and challenges.