Robots With Scalpels

Surgeons are generally perceived as cool, precise operators who focus on their work with the concentration of a machine. One day soon, though, critical-care patients in places where immediate surgical response is not possible may find themselves under the scalpels of wireless robotic systems, which could be even more cool and precise than the skilled doctors at their controls. In our cover story this month "Doc at a Distance", authors Jacob Rosen and Blake Hannaford explain how remote surgery technologies are maturing and where they could be headed in the future.

They note that surgeons have remotely commanded robotic systems before, even with real patients under the knife—situations that took place in "well-equipped hospitals and relied on dedicated, wired communications channels." Their research, on the other hand, looks at how we might be able to cut the cords and perform true electronic telemedicine operations on severely wounded patients in chaotic conditions, such as battlefields. They ask, essentially, how we can break free from the wires.

Rosen and Hannaford (IEEE Fellow) are the co-directors of the University of Washington's BioRobotics Laboratory. They recently deployed a distance-medicine system to the hills of California for field-testing, under the aegis of the U.S. Army, and ran it through surgical procedures on, thankfully, anatomical dummies. The first conclusion they drew is that "surgical robots need plenty of improvement." They go on to say, however, that future deployments "will use imaging technologies such as ultrasound, MRI, and CT scans as their 'eyes', and they will break free from centuries of surgical convention, entering the body through existing openings and moving inside the patient as they make their way to the surgery area." They surmise:

As the technology matures, surgical robots promise to improve a wide range of procedures in terms of patient recovery time, cost, and safety. Medicine, however, is, as it should be, a conservative field, following Hippocrates' mantra: "I will keep [patients] from harm and injustice." In the next several decades, surgical robots, like many technologies introduced in medicine, will prove their value and become mainstream tools—tools always guided by a physician's judgment and dedication to the delivery of the best health care.

The BioRobotics Laboratory team in Washington participates in another military-funded initiative, the US $12 million Trauma Pod program, begun last year by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and managed by SRI International, of Menlo Park, Calif. It seeks to develop an unmanned, mobile operating room that is equipped with a host of automated surgical systems and could be quickly dispatched anywhere in a war zone, according to the authors. You can learn more about this effort at the Army's Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center.

Robotic medicine is coming—and it's coming faster than you think to a hot-spot near you.

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