Modern laparoscopic surgeries may be minimally invasive, but they still require multiple incisions. To make laparoscopies even less intrusive, scientists and surgeons at Columbia University and Vanderbilt University have built a robot that can enter the body through a single 15-millimeter incision or through a natural opening like the mouth. Once inside the body the robot, which has not yet been tested in humans, unfolds like a NASA spaceship, communicates its position through a wire connected to an external computer, and follows instructions to advance, stop, tie sutures and perform other actions. It comes with a camera that tracks the movements of surgical instruments and projects them onto a computer console. Developers say it could perform appendectomies, hysterectomies, some types of kidney surgery, and possibly ear and throat surgery.

The Insertable Robotic Effector Platform (IREP) is entering animal testing this fall and could be available within five years. Until now, no study has offered conclusive proof that robotic surgery trumps traditional laparoscopic techniques, but IREP's developers say it is lighter and cheaper than da Vinci, the leading surgical system. “There is definitely a potential here,” says William Lowrance, a robotic surgery expert at the University of Utah, adding that it might offer more dexterity and precision than traditional laparoscopic tools.