Robotic surgery tech provides users with a sense of touch

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The headline feature of HeroSurg is its haptic feedback system(Credit: Deakin University)

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A new system called HeroSurg, developed by researchers at Deakin and Harvard Universities, is set to increase what surgeons can achieve via robotic surgery, using a haptic feedback system to provide a sense of touch. It also brings other improvements over existing tech, such as collision avoidance, to make robotic surgery safer and more accurate.

Robotic surgery, wherein human-controlled robots perform delicate surgical tasks, has been around for a while. One great example of the tech is the da Vinci robotic surgical system from Intuitive Surgical – a setup made up of numerous robotic arms, a console to operate the instruments, and an imaging system that shows the surgeon what's happening in real time. In 2008, Professor Suren Krishnan, a member of the team behind HeroSurg, became the first surgeon to perform ear, throat and nose operations using the da Vinci robotic surgical system.

Since then, we've seen numerous breakthroughs, including improvements to the original da Vinci system, and other robots emerging capable of achieving impressive tasks, such as performing surgery on a beating heart, or successfully stitching soft tissue.

Just this month, surgeons at the University of Oxford announced that they were able to use a system called the Robotic Retinal Dissection Device (R2D2) to perform a delicate eye operation – one that required sub-millimeter levels of precision, simply not possible with the human hand. The Deakin University researchers believe that HeroSurg could equip surgeons with the tools needed to take robotic surgery to the next level.

The headline feature of the HeroSurg is its haptic feedback system. Sensors are integrated into the instruments, allowing the forces applied by the surgeon to be measured in real time, fed back as vibrations to the user's hands.

While the advantages of being able to "feel" as well as see what's happening on the operating table are obvious, the benefits go beyond merely improving the operator's confidence in what they're doing. According to the team behind HeroSurg, the feedback system will allow doctors to touch tissue – in a virtual sense of course – and accurately determine its stiffness.

That ability to distinguish the stiffness of tissue will let HeroSurg operators tell the difference between normal and abnormal tissue, such as tumor tissue. This is a very common method used by doctors and surgeons, known as palpation, but it isn't something that's been possible with robotic surgery solutions until now.

The new system also includes a collision avoidance feature, with sensors positioned around the system to ensure that its different elements, such as the robotic arms and the bed on which the patient is positioned, don't come into contact with one another, which could potentially cause the instruments to slip, harming the patient.

The setup includes high-resolution 3D imaging capabilities, and features an ergonomic console design to ensure that the surgeon's comfort level doesn't distract him or her from the procedure. The setup is also designed to be modular, allowing for easy replacement of individual parts to suit particular applications.

As far as its creators are concerned, the HeroSurg could have a big impact in the medical world. Patients might not have to wait ages to see the benefits of the new system, with the team already looking to human trials.

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