Robots: Surgeons Little Helpers

Steady-hand and snake robot prototypes have been unveiled for precision surgery applications.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins have unveiled a snakelike robot that might, one day, slither in patients throats to make incisions and tie off sutures. Another tiny robot could inject drugs into blood vessels in patients eyes, a procedure now stymied because surgeons hands tremor slightly.

Right now, the steady-hand and snake robots for surgeries are just prototypes. The ideas come from an engineering research center devoted to building robots just for surgeries. Such specialized robots have led to a steady stream of headlines and announcements, hailing mainly from academic laboratories.

Many languish there because academics lack funds to develop prototypes into more robust models, and commercial firms worry that surgeons will prove reluctant to use nonconventional methods that require additional training.

Nonetheless, robotic advances can be adopted quickly, and engineers are more and more likely to collaborate with surgeons and other physicians, so that the engineers invent tools that appeal to doctors, rather than just other engineers.

"Human hands are remarkable, but they have limitations," said Russell H. Taylor, a professor of computer science and director of a John Hopkins Center devoted to designing robots for surgeries. "There are times when it would be useful to have a third hand, and we can provide that. Sometimes a surgeons fingers are too large to work in a small confined space within the body. We can help by building tools that act like unhumanly small and highly dexterous hands."

The snakelike robot, for example, would be used in procedures that currently require surgeons to simultaneously insert long, inflexible tools, plus a camera. The snakelike robot has tentacles at the tips of two thin robs. The tentacles can move up, down, back, forth and left to right. If necessary, the tools can bend into an S-curve. Sophisticated software allows for up to 100 adjustments per second, making movements nimble. If made of nonmagnetic materials, the robot could be safely used around magnetic imaging equipment.

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The surgeon would sit at a robotic workstation with eye-pieces that show the patients innards in 3 dimensions. The doctor would then maneuver the controls to guide the robot.

One force driving the rise of surgical robots is the ability to integrate computer systems, such as a visualization system with robotics. Many visualization systems can record information and play it back later, a feature that can be used to train surgeons and evaluate their products. A more nascent technology, called haptics, aims to allow surgeons to "feel" what the robots "feel" and so sense how soft or tough manipulated tissue is.

Taylor sees even more integration, pairing surgery robots with patients electronic medical records. Algorithms could check how well patients responded to treatments, and so help doctors learn what protocols are most effective. "We could produce the equivalent of a flight-data recorder for the operating room," he said.

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