Robo-Surgeon Takes on Baldness

Restoration Robotics' ARTAS system harvests hair follicles for later implantation

2 min read
Robo-Surgeon Takes on Baldness
Image: Restoration Robotics

Lots of news lately from San Jose-based robo-surgeon manufacturer Restoration Robotics. In October, the company announced that it had just sold its 100th ARTAS robotics system (at about US $200,000 each) and “harvested” its 10 millionth hair follicle. (At about 1200 to 1600 hair follicles per patient, that’s perhaps 7000 or so patients that have had the robotic surgery.)

And this month, news came out that the backers of Restoration Robotics, among them venture firms Sutter Hill, Clarus, and InterWest Partners, had just put a few more million dollars into the company, closing out a Series C round of $45 million, for a total investment to date of more than $70 million. (That’s $7 per hair if you’re counting.)

img ARTAS uses a high resolution image of the scalp to allow it to identify target follicles. Image: Restoration Robotics

Restoration Robotics started in 2002, and its first-generation product received Food and Drug Administration clearance in 2011. This latest round of funding aims to bring a second-generation robot to market.

The VCs aren’t making a crazy bet—cures for baldness are a $3.5 billion  market annually—and that’s just in the United States. If Restoration Robotics gets a decent piece of that market, its investors would win big.

img The robot then punches out individual follicles for later implantation. Illustration: Restoration Robotics

The ARTAS robot, using an onboard camera and analysis software, analyses high-resolution images of a patient’s scalp and selects follicles to extract; a doctor watching a monitor (in the same room or remotely) oversees these choices. The robot then uses one needle to break the skin and then follows it with a hollow needle to punch out the follicle. The doctor later manually inserts the follicles into previously bald areas of the scalp.

A typical harvesting session takes 6 to 10 hours—that’s a long time for a patient in a chair, but it’s faster than a doctor could do it working follicle by follicle, which is why surgeons extracting follicles manually usually take off strips, not individual follicles. Restoration Robotics advertises its approach as less likely to leave scarring and more likely to lead to a natural look.

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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman
LightGreen

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.

"I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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