Valdastri takes NSF CAREER Award for capsule robots with educational component

Pietro Valdastri

Vanderbilt University researcher Pietro Valdastri won a $400,000 National Science Foundation CAREER Award with his proposal, not only to design and build capsule robots capable of finding internal disease, but also to make sure his discoveries are used in education at all levels.

Valdastri, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, primarily focuses his research on the development of medical capsule robots that will replace traditional colonoscopy and reduce the pain and discomfort associated with the often life-saving procedure. He is principal investigator with the Science and Technology of Robotics and Medicine Lab — or STORM Lab — in the School of Engineering.

The robots also have potential applications for tissue palpitation to identify liver tumors and for low-cost gastroscopies.

A wireless medical capsule before the final assembly.

Valdastri’s CAREER proposal focuses on using robotics, mechatronics and engineering design to further development of intelligent capsule robots that find diseases and treat patients without invasive surgeries. It includes a three-part plan:

  • Actuation and Control: Using magnetic fields and hydrojet propulsion, multiphysics modeling and real-time sensor data to give the robots movement and intelligence.
  • Modular Design Environment for Capsule Robots: Defining each modular component of the robots, developing a common language to describe the components, creating graphics to explain them and providing an open-source repository of hardware and software available to other researchers.
  • Education: Infusing the results of the first two items on the list into K-12, university and post-graduate education. Valdastri also wants an international graduate student exchange program, opportunities for high school students to study the robots at Vanderbilt and a curriculum that could be used in high school and university classrooms.

The results of all three thrusts would be used to develop testbed surgical scenarios for the robots.

“The field of capsule robots is entering an exciting era where novel miniature technologies are enabling more intelligence and more power to be stored in a smaller space,” Valdastri wrote.

“(We have) the potential to improve public health by preventing the development of cancer by early diagnosis, improving the outcomes of abdominal surgery, reducing treatment costs, and enabling entirely new surgical approaches to diseases that are untreatable (and in many cases terminal) today. The proposed curriculum will infuse research results into the classroom, and the involvement of undergraduates, high school students, and high school teachers will enhance the research while promoting learning.”

The news from NSF comes on the heels of another recent honor. In September, Valdastri learned he won a $1.5 million grant for his proposal “A magnetic capsule endoscope for colonoscopy in patients with IBD” from the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, one of the 26 National Institutes of Health.


Heidi Hall
On Twitter @VUEngineering