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Q&A: Professor Tania Morimoto

morimoto-tania.jpegTania K. Morimoto is an Assistant Professor with dual appointments in the UC San Diego Departments of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and Surgery. Her work focuses on the design and control of flexible continuum robots for increased dexterity and accessibility in uncertain environments -- particularly for minimally invasive surgeries. Prof. Morimoto, who obtained an undergraduate degree in Mechanical Engineering from MIT and a masters and PhD at Stanford University, recently received a Science Foundation CAREER grant as part of its Foundational Research in Robotics program. In our Q&A this month, Prof. Morimoto discusses her research into the challenges of designing human-in-the-loop interfaces for controlling flexible and soft robots, including the integration of haptic feedback to improve surgical outcomes.

Q: What is the Foundational Research in Robotics (FRR) program?
The FRR program is a cross-directorate National Science Foundation (NSF) program, jointly managed by the Directorates for Engineering (ENG) and Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE). This program supports research on robotic systems that exhibit significant levels of both computational capability and physical complexity.

Q: Your proposal is called "Extending Human Dexterity Through Hand-Held Continuum Robots." What will your project entail?
Navigation to target regions, such as tumors or abscesses deep inside the human body, can be challenging to achieve via straight-line paths using conventional rigid-linked robots. This project will focus on hand-held continuum robots, which can enable a workflow similar to using manual tools and can combine the benefits of direct human operation with the precision and dexterity of robotic control. Continuum robots are long, flexible, snake-like robots that are inherently compliant and can easily navigate through highly curved and constrained environments. The complex kinematics of these robots, along with the direct physical coupling of the human and robot in a hand-held architecture, pose challenges for how to enable precise and intuitive control for operators. The objective of this project is to determine how different human-continuum robot interaction methods affect task performance and to test these approaches in the context of a hand-held concentric tube robot and a hand-held, steerable vine robot.

Q: How will this grant advance your career?
This grant will help support a five-year project that will serve as a step towards achieving my career-long research and education goals. My career-long research goals are: 1) to create seamless and natural interfaces to control flexible and soft robots; 2) to design the robots themselves based on knowledge of how humans embody and control them; and (3) to apply these new robotic systems to surgery. My career-long education and outreach goal is to engage and empower students to learn the fundamentals of kinematics, dynamics, and controls, as well as to seek to apply this knowledge to their own area of interest.

Q: In what ways will this research benefit society, particularly patients or others who stand to benefit from advances in robotic surgery?
The proposed hand-held continuum robots have potential for significant societal impact, due to their compact size, ease of integration into standard workflows, minimal setup time, and high dexterity. These features can enable low-cost, small-footprint robots that could complement surgical care in low-resourced or remote environments, where the infrastructure for large, expensive equipment may not exist.

Q: What are you most excited about with regard to the future of robotics in surgery?
I am very excited about the potential for new, flexible robotic systems to enable safer and more minimally invasive access to hard-to-reach locations inside the body. I also hope that through the creation of novel robot designs and intuitive user interfaces, we can help enable more widespread access to robotic surgical procedures.