Robotics in surgery
While humanoid autonomous robots will take a while to become a part of our lives, the other parts of the field of robotics are already becoming a reality. Even better: they are helping to save lives.
There is a special kind of surgery called “minimally invasive procedure”, which are surgeries that, instead of opening large sections of your body, use incisions of smaller size, being more localized and useful for specific problems, such as removing tissue, catheterization, fixing eye problems such as myopia, among others.
However, doing such precise procedures can be challenging even for the most experienced surgeons, exactly due to the precision they need. Depending on what is being done, a mistake may lead to the need to make open surgery.
That’s where the robots come in.
The robot itself
Machines can be very precise, and scientists and engineers are always working to make them ever more precise. The field of machining, for example, which handles machines designed to cut metal following blueprints, has some experience with dealing with precision.
The average milling machine has a precision of about 0.005 inches (0.1 mm), but there are much more precise machines available in case a project needs one. In this case, however, if the milling process does not make the product close enough to specification, there may be some other techniques to solve that.
With robotic surgery it is not so simple. So the robot must be made to be as precise as possible, within the realm of possibility. Every machine can have problems with misalignment, so the engineers involved must work to minimize it. Software and hardware bugs can be deadly, so safety measures must be in place.
A lot can go wrong, so it must be really well made. Meaning these robots can be pretty costly.
Controlling the robot
However, don’t think that these kinds of robots are a kind of “auto-doc”. They are always manually controlled by the surgeon, who is normally in the same room as the robot or close to it (but that may change with investments in remote surgery).
However, the robot’s precision isn’t tied only to its own movements. So much precision would actually be detrimental if the robot actually reproduced every movement the surgeon did on a one-to-one ratio. Instead, there are a series of filters that prevent it from reproducing movements that are too small or too quick, such as tremors.
Instead of using controllers such as “joysticks”, the robot’s controllers aims to simulate the way the surgeon would hold any usual tool, such as a scalpel, meaning the robot’s arm and tools can be gently moved using only two or three fingers, allowing the surgeons to also apply their muscle memory and surgical experience into the procedure. The system also gives access to a full 3D view of the site where the surgery will be done along with any other information that may be needed. You may also know: Crime Syndicates
Robotic surgery involves many of the risks of other minimally invasive procedures, namely a small risk of infection, aside from the small risk of malfunctions. However, it is still a rather new technology, and surgeons haven’t completely adapted to it. It has a bit of a steep learning curve and some machines do not have haptic feedback, that is, the surgeon may not feel he touched the patient when doing so.
As with any surgery, it comes with its risks involved, but with the disadvantage that manual surgery is already much more widespread and easier to get experienced in. As robotic surgery can be much more expensive, surgeons will have more problems to get used to it, along with the learning curve that the hardware comes with.
Fortunately, we can be sure that those problems won’t remain for long. Companies and universities are always working to improve the state of the art, and with robotic surgery it is no exception. We can expect the technology to become cheaper and safer in the near future, and maybe even automated.