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Researchers Reach First Automated Surgery Milestones

Shane McGlaun / DailyTech

May 08, 2008

‘Rudimentary robot was able to perform simple surgical procedures without human assistance.’ -

Doctors and surgeons already make use of some types of robots to perform procedures where the precision of the operation required is often more than a human can consistently offer. Some researchers say that the day when these robots can perform procedures without the need for humans is closer.

Engineers at Duke University have conducted a feasibility test in the lab that shows fully automated robotic surgical procedures could be possible and the researchers say that the tests could prove beneficial immediately for current medical procedures.

The engineers used a rudimentary tabletop robot that used 3D ultrasound technology for its eyes. The robot also had an intelligence program capable of processing the 3D information coming from the ultrasound sensors and issue specific commands for the robotic arm to perform.

Stephen Smith, director of the Duke University Ultrasound Transducer Group and senior research team member, said in a statement, “In a number of tasks, the computer was able to direct the robot’s actions. We believe that this is the first proof-of-concept for this approach. Given that we achieved these early results with a rudimentary robot and a basic artificial intelligence program, the technology will advance to the point where robots – without the guidance of the doctor – can someday operate on people.”

The procedures that the robot performed in the feasibility study included a simulated needle biopsy and the direction of catheters inside synthetic blood vessels. John Whitman, an engineering student in Smith’s lab said, “The robot was able to accurately direct needle probes to target needles based on the information sent by the catheter transducer. The ability of the robot to guide a probe within a vascular graft is a first step toward further testing the system in animal models.”

The simulated needle biopsy had the robot arm introducing a needle into a liquid-filled balloon in a medium designed to simulate tissue. For the catheter test the robot was able to touch the needle on its arm to another needle in a water bath.

Whitman continued saying, “These experiments demonstrated the feasibility of autonomous robots accomplishing simulated tasks under the guidance of 3-D ultrasound, and we believe that it warrants additional study.”

The more immediate benefits of the research according to the scientists could be the addition of 3D ultrasound technology to aid doctors introducing heart catheters. These catheters are guided today under fluoroscopy, which exposes the patient and doctor to radiation. The ultrasound technique would reduce the exposure to radiation compared to traditional methods.

Complete autonomous surgical procedures are very important for saving lives in remote locations both on Earth and in space. NASA is also investigating automated robotic surgical procedures to treat medical emergencies in space.

© 2008, DailyTech

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