surgical robots

Surgical Robots Shine in Complex Procedures

Robots have become increasingly common in many aspects of manufacturing and production, where they are utilized for their ability to perform repetitious and precise movements without tiring, succumbing to distractions, or needing to take a lunch break. Similar attributes are required by surgeons in the operating room, which is part of the reason why robots have started to play a larger role in the surgical realm over recent years.

Believe it or not, robots have been assisting in surgeries since the 1980s. The first of its kind, Arthrobot, responded to voice commands and was able to manipulate and position a patient’s leg for arthroscopic surgery. Other pioneering robots included a surgical scrub nurse, who could hand instruments to a surgeon upon vocal command, and PROBOT – developed at Imperial College in London in the late 1980s to perform prostate surgery. As would be expected, the last 30 years have seen significant progress in the field of surgical robots, with many robots graduating from simply fetching instruments to actually performing incisions and getting their “hands” dirty.

What are surgical robots up to today?

One of the most widely used robots in the surgery field is the da Vinci robot from Intuitive Surgical in California, a company founded in the 1990s with a focus on advancing tele-robotic technology and human-machine interfaces in the surgical realm. The da Vinci utilizes its mechanical arms to hold surgical instruments and visual aids such as lights and cameras. The surgeon views 3D images of the patient and guides the movements of the robot via a console, and the da Vinci system then executes these movements. The instrument can bend and rotate with a greater range of motion than a human hand, offering precise movements and eliminating the concern of fatigue during long surgeries.

The small size of the instrument allows the surgeon to operate through smaller incisions than would usually be required, which can speed up patient recovery time and shorten hospital stays, reduce the need for blood transfusions, and result in a smaller surgical scar. This technology is now well established, with over 5000 da Vinci systems in hospitals around the world, and millions of routine surgeries successfully completed using the assistance of these robots. The da Vinci system has been utilized in general surgery, as well as a wide range of surgical specialties, including cardiac and colorectal operations.

Improving robotic vision – the STAR system

One of the biggest limitations of using independent robots in surgery is their poor vision. Sure, robots can make perfect incisions, tie knots, and suture you back up, but in a surgical situation they often struggle to distinguish where organs are, relative to each other. It makes sense – the human body is a messy place, especially when it’s cut open and organs can move around, so a surgeon is required to steer the robot in the right direction. However, the Smart Tissue Autonomous Robot, or STAR, is bringing about advances in self-driving surgical robots.

Researchers based at the Children’s National Health System in Washington D.C. and Johns Hopkins University have invented and developed the robot, which utilizes near-infrared fluorescence and plenoptic imaging from multiple cameras to create a 3D model of its surroundings. The device uses these images to make extremely precise incisions – it can adjust its cut to accommodate movements in the tissue, making it suitable for cutting or suturing a wide range of tissue types with different textures. The STAR can successfully remove a tumor from a “patient” (it has only been tested on animal tissues thus far) and was able to make more precise incisions than surgeons during a head to head comparison. It is hoped that in the future, the STAR can use its advanced vision system to deal with tumors that have complex 3D shapes, requiring more skill and precision to remove. This technology is still in the developmental phases, but it’s fair to say that STAR has a bright future when it comes to clinical applications.

What does the future hold?

The semi-autonomous robots that are currently assisting surgeons throughout the world have been overwhelmingly successful. The surgical robot market is expected to see substantial growth over the next several years, with projections suggesting this will be a $6.5 billion market by 2023. There is no doubt that these robots will be more heavily involved in surgical procedures as the technology develops further.

While there will always be a market for semi-autonomous robots, the next step forward is to create a robot that can complete an entire surgery from start to finish. For surgical robots to become independent in this sense, they will need to learn what to do when a patient has an abnormality they were not expecting, as often occurs during surgery. The development of self-guided robots that can learn from their experiences – successes and failures – is already in the works, and the ability to connect each robot over a network will allow for the sharing of this information with other surgical bots, speeding up the learning process.

Although it is not likely that surgical robots will ever replace human surgeons, their expertise and assistance could greatly help to reduce human error during surgeries, decrease the time that a surgery takes, and speed up patient recovery time.