Experts are developing a flexible surgical robot, known as the i-Snake, which they say could revolutionise keyhole surgery.
The i-Snake is highly flexible
It could enable surgeons to do complex procedures previously possible only through more invasive techniques.
A team at Imperial College London has been granted £2.1 million for the work.
They envisage using the i-Snake - a long tube housing special motors, sensors and imaging tools - for heart bypass surgery.
But it could also be used to diagnose problems in the gut and bowel by acting as the surgeon's hands and eyes in hard to reach places inside the body.
The Imperial College team, which includes health minister and surgeon Lord Ara Darzi, will test the device initially in the laboratory before it is used on patients.
KEYHOLE SURGERY MILESTONES
1900s - Mirrors, lights and lenses attached to endoscopic tubes are used to examine bodies' interiors
1930s - Fibre-optics offer an essential light source; endoscopes now thinner and more flexible
1970s - Cameras attached to endoscopes mean that surgeons can operate from images on a screen. Lasers developed which can perform surgery
Source: Ghislaine Lawrence, Science Museum, London
Minimally invasive surgery has obvious advantages - it can mean smaller scars, reduced hospital stays and shorter recovery times.
Surgeons are also looking at ways to avoid skin incisions altogether.
One approach is Natural Orifice Transluminal Endoscopic Surgery or Notes. This means operating in the peritoneal space through natural orifices or cavities, such as the bowel.
Lord Darzi said: "The unrivalled imaging and sensing capabilities coupled with the accessibility and sensitivity of i-Snake will enable more complex diagnostic and therapeutic procedures than are currently possible.
"The cost benefits that i-Snake will introduce include earlier, cheaper and less invasive treatment, faster recovery and procedure times and intangible benefits through an increase in patient care and quality of life."
Dr Ted Bianco, director of technology transfer at the Wellcome Trust, said: "Gone are the days when the surgeon's knife ruled in the operating theatre. The future of surgery is in smart devices like i-Snake."