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Biomedical Engineer Dr. Giada Gerboni on Creating Soft Robotics for Surgeons

August 6, 2018
Gerboni 300 dpi (1)

Dr. Giada Gerboni

As part of our Women in STEM Series we recently spoke with Dr. Giada Gerboni who was a featured speaker at TED2018, “The incredible potential of flexible, soft robotics”. Dr. Gerboni received a BE and MS degrees in biomedical engineering from the University of Pisa and a PhD in biorobotics from The BioRobotics Institute of Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies in Pisa, Italy. Dr. Gerboni is currently a postdoctoral scholar at Stanford University, in the Collaborative Haptics and Robotics in Medicine (CHARM) Lab. How did you get interested in engineering?

Dr. Giada Gerboni: “I’ve always done well in technical and scientific courses. I originally wanted to study medicine but realized that while I didn’t want to be a doctor, I enjoyed the technology that helps doctors. That interest led to biomedical engineering. What I’m doing now, robotics for surgery, is applying technology to medicine in order to help the surgeon be more precise.” What can science learn from the animal world, that will ultimately help people?

Dr. Gerboni: “While soft robotics has existed for several years, the vision I presented at TED, using soft robotics for surgical applications, is new. In surgery you need to be dexterous, and with discrete joints that is difficult. Leading up to the application of soft robotics for surgery the projects we worked on were bio-inspired, including the octopus project shown in the TED Talk. We looked at nature’s strategies for dexterity and accomplishing tasks as a different approach from conventional robotics structures. Evolution is an amazing experimentation machine.” What advice do you have for students who are entering university with an interest in engineering?

Dr. Gerboni: “Focus on what you are passionate about, even if it seems very challenging. When we started the soft robotics project for surgery, the state of the art was very limited – it was all about trial and error. My advice is to not be scared about challenging projects because the most interesting results can come from those projects. It’s also important to start with simple prototypes that allow you to test and learn. For our project there were also multiple teams of people working on different parts of the project; the team I was on were in charge of the hardware while other teams worked on the controller and sensors.”

Gerboni TED 2018 2

Credit: Photo: Bret Hartman / TED Where do you see soft robotics in five years and beyond?

GerboniDr. Gerboni: “There three areas of focus. One is related to the hardware: the actuation today is based on air or fluid pressure which requires a pump and a way to power the pump. There is work to try and address this problem. Another problem is sensors, with rigid structures you can rely on the rigidity of the structure; with soft structures you need distributed sensors which are difficult to implement. Finally how we control soft robots will be different, new algorithms and applications of artificial intelligence will need to be developed.”


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