While many modern robotic inventions seem more like moonshot projects than practical ones, in the medical field, robots have been helping doctors perform surgery for over a decade. In most cases though, surgeons control the movement of the robot through joysticks, knobs, dials and other peripherals. A new exoskeleton being developed at the University of the West of England (UWE), Bristol, however, turns a doctor's hands into the controls.
Surgeons would slide the exoskeleton over their hands like a glove. At the other end of the device, a new surgical gripper would not only move according to the doctors' hand gestures, but it would be equipped with haptic feedback such as that found on the HeroSurg system announced last year, so in a sense, the surgeons could feel what the gripper was touching in their patients' bodies.
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A third part of the exoskeleton system is a set of smart glasses that would beam images from inside a patient's body to the eyes of the surgeon.
The result is that doctors will be able to feel much closer to procedures than by using robotic surgical systems that currently exist.
"In our project, the exoskeleton will record the position of the fingers and communicate this to the robotic tools inside the body using tele-operated technology," said Sanja Dogramadzi from the Bristol Robotics Laboratory. "We want to give existing processes a more natural interface – operating surgeons will not have to do any unusual or unnatural movement. They will be able to use their hands as they would in open incision surgery. This also means that training to use the robotic technology for surgery will be quicker."
If a surgeon using his or her own hands inside the body is the gold standard, why, you might wonder, should a robot even be used to perform such delicate procedures in the first place? The reason is that human hands are large, and placing them inside the body to operate requires large incisions. Robots however, can operate through much smaller incisions through a process known as keyhole surgery. Smaller incisions generally mean less blood loss, shorter recovery times and a reduced risk of infection. Also, in some cases, robots are simply better than human surgeons.
The lab has already built a prototype of the system, which they will keep developing with input from surgeons, who will be trained on its proper use.
"The research will use the expertise and feedback of senior surgeons to develop the tools," said Dogramadzi. "We will use rapid prototyping to make prototype tools that the surgeons will be able to test and we will incorporate their feedback into the next stage of design. This means we can adapt tools to the needs of different surgical procedures and this user-centred design process places surgeons at the heart of the development of this system. We hope our research into designing this wearable system will help to expand the range of surgical procedures that can use robotic assisted systems so that more patients and hospitals can gain the benefits from this type of surgery."
You can hear more from Dogramadzi and the other researchers involved in the project in the video below.