AI-enabled Robots Bring Precision to Complex Surgeries

Robotic systems enable some surgeries to be accomplished with minimal incisions, drastically reducing patient recovery times and health risks, while providing surgeons with more precise views and movement during the procedure. 


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Image crediti: DaVinci

In 1985, the PUMA 560 was the first robot to assist in surgery. It was used to place a needle during brain biopsy, alleviating human error due to hand tremors. That eventually led to the development of laparoscopic surgery, in which doctors insert through small incisions long, flexible instruments with a light or camera at the end.

Today’s robotic devices integrate Internet of Things (IoT) technologies, including artificial intelligence, computer vision and data analytics, to improve medical procedures. They currently enable minimally invasive procedures and increase precision. They also can be used to train students in virtual environments. Eventually these devices may facilitate remote surgery or operate autonomously under a surgeon’s supervision.

Cloud-based AI and machine learning further expand robotic capabilities, enabling doctors to view simulations of successful surgeries or receive real-time guidance during an operation. In the future, surgical robots could use computer vision to direct care in specific anatomical areas while avoiding nerves and other obstacles. For example, a map of the patient’s anatomy could be layered over the surgical area allowing doctors to avoid damaging blood vessels.  AI-based systems can track specific instruments used and compare surgeries to determine the most effective surgical strategies.


Intuitive Surgery

Intuitive Surgical’s DaVinci series of devices claim about 80 percent of the global market for robotic-assisted surgery systems. The DaVinci systems use a patient cart, surgeon console, and vision cart. The surgeon sits in the console to maneuver the “wristed” instruments at the end of each robotic arm and can view the operation on an HD 3D screen. The patient cart sits by the patient’s bed and contains the camera and surgical instruments the surgeon controls from the console.

Robotic arms for surgery
Image crediti: DaVinci

The vision cart enables communication between the console and patient cart. It contains a screen to display a live feed of the operation. The DaVinci system follows the movements of the surgeon’s hands in real-time and integrates tremor filtration technology to steady human movements. Optional software can offer on-screen notifications and cues for surgeons, data about the health of the DaVinci system, and a simulation program to hone skills.

An early entrant in the space, DaVinci’s hold on the market could change. Intuitive’s patents are likely to expire in 2022, and competition is expected to heat up as Medtronic’s Hugo system and Johnson & Johnson’s Ottava system gain traction in the market.

Beyond the Torso

Kalamazoo, Michigan-based Stryker, is a leader in medical robots for the orthopedic sector. Stryker’s Mako robots are designed for use in knee and hip replacement surgeries. Mako integrates robotic arms with 3D imaging, data analytics, and AI modeling. It can be programmed to perform common orthopedic procedures and eventually will handle small tasks, such as suturing, automatically.

In the craniofacial surgery sector, a promising startup is Asimov Robotics. Asimov is developing a robotic system to help doctors perform surgeries that address skull and facial deformities. Skull surgeries can be particularly challenging because of the proximity to the brain and the extensive incisions required. The Asimov solution combines a small, minimally invasive cutting unit that is placed on the head. Surgeons use a robotic arm with six degrees of freedom and magnetic coupling to guide the cutter.

One of the benefits of using robotic arms is that they have a greater range of motion than a human hand. They move 360 degrees in small spaces with dexterity and precision. The camera magnifies the area, enabling surgeons to see microscopic blood vessels and nerves that the naked eye cannot. Robotic devices also minimize fatigue, as surgeons aren’t required to stand during the operation, which can reduce the likelihood of errors.

Advances in medical devices are making surgeries easier for doctors and shortening patient recovery times. That’s a win for all humanity.

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