This technology provides a simple, agile method of “steering” a flexible needle through soft materials, such as flesh or mud.
Steerable needle technology has been around for several decades, particularly in the field of robotics. Steerable needles follow paths that normal, straight needles cannot and are able to navigate around obstacles to perform tasks such as delivering injections or removing substances for further study.
But steerable needle technology has also been limited by design restrictions. For example, the steerable needles in use today cannot make sharp turns and are so complex they must be operated by a robot. Their lack of maneuverability also means they can cause damage to flesh when used in medical procedures.
The steerable needle technology created in Mark Yim’s lab solves those problems. By utilizing the ability of the material to be stiff when straight and flexible when bent, the needle can make multiple sharp curves, resulting in a more precise path.
Yim’s lab compares the technology to the way a tape measure bends, or to the classic cell phone game Snake. The device is simple enough that it can be operated by a human, and requires relatively little force. The needles are also relatively cheap to produce.
While steerable needles have obvious medical applications, Yim suggests that there are other applications for the technology, such as search and rescue, environmental management, and construction.