October 28, 2005
Implantable Remote Controlled Surgical Robot Developed

University of Nebraska researchers have developed a 3 inch (8 centimeters) insertable remote controlled robot for abdomen surgery.

But, these tiny-wheeled robots – slipped into the abdomen and controlled by surgeons hundreds of kilometers away – may be giants in saving the lives of roadside accident victims and soldiers injured on the battlefield.

Each camera-carrying robot -- the width of a lipstick case -- would illuminate the patient’s abdomen, beam back video images and carry different tools to help surgeons stop internal bleeding by clamping, clotting or cauterizing wounds.

Sound far-fetched? Not for physicians and engineers at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and University of Nebraska-Lincoln, who already are turning the sci-fi idea into reality with a handful of miniature prototypes.

“We want to be the Microsoft leader in this technology and be the state that changes the way surgery is done,” said Shane Farritor, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering in UNL’s College of Engineering and Technology.

“This work has the potential to completely change the minimally invasive surgery landscape,” said Dmitry Oleynikov, M.D., director of education and training for the minimally invasive and computer-assisted surgery initiative. “This is just the start of things to come regarding robotic devices at work inside the body during surgery.”

So when will surgery by hands-on surgeons become less common than surgery by robots that are controlled by surgeons? 20 years? 30 year? When will surgeon-controlled robots be replaced by totally automated robots?

This approach provides greater control and more views than existing laparoscopic techniques.

It’s a stark contrast to existing laparoscopic techniques, which allow surgeons to perform operations through small incisions. The benefits of laparoscopy are limited to less complex procedures, however, because of losses in imaging and dexterity compared to conventional surgery.

“These remotely controlled in vivo robots provide the surgeon with an enhanced field of view from arbitrary angles, as well as provide dexterous manipulators not constrained by small incisions in the abdominal wall,” Dr. Oleynikov said.

In fact, the view is better than the naked eye, he said, because the in-color pictures from the roaming robots are magnified 10x.

Future remote use applications include space, battlefield, and civilian emergencies.

On the battlefield, these tiny soldiers can be inserted into wounds and allow remote surgeons to determine how critical the injury is and what immediate steps can be taken to ensure survival.

The UNMC and UNL team also plans to soon test a final prototype of a mobile biopsy robot designed to take samples of tissue. In addition, the design team is making modified robots that can be inserted into the stomach cavity through the esophagus.

The 3-inch long, aluminum-cased robots contain gears, motors, lenses, camera chips and electrical boards. “Three inches seems to be our limit at the moment because of the electrical components we use,” said designer Mark Rentschler, a Ph.D. candidate in biomedical engineering at UNL. “If we were to make 1,000 robots we would be able to afford customized electrical components that would reduce the size of the robot by half.”

The design team said initially the mini-robots will be single-use devices, although they eventually may be able to be sterilized for multiple use.

The group intends to create a local, spin-off company and then seek FDA approval of the devices, which would be applicable for any laparoscopic or minimally invasive surgery – from gall bladder to hernia repair.

NASA will begin trials next spring with an astronaut in a submarine off of Florida. The scientists hope to begin clinical trials with humans within a year in the UK.

One can also imagine an insertable stem cell incubator that would continually produce stem cells aimed at an especially damaged part of the body. Or how about an insertable robot surgeon that stays in the body for days and weeks to gradually reshape damaged tissue with a combination of a series of small surgical modifications, drug delivery, and stem cell delivery? In the longer run nanobots will do a lot of that work. But before nanobots become practical more conventional miniaturized robots will do a lot of repair work.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2005 October 28 10:34 AM  Biotech Manipulations


Comments
Brock said at October 28, 2005 11:03 AM:

No way this takes 30 years. The smarts of these devices follow's Moore's Curve. The robotics half may not fall in price & double in precision quite as quickly, but what we'll be able to do in 10 years will spin your head.

To my mind the biggest barrier to adoption of these technologies is acceptance by the Doctors who use them. It's not that Doctors don't care about saving lives, it's just that due to the lack of information provided to consumers on survival rates and outcome statistics, Hospitals don't have the same driving hammer of competition forcing them to adopt the latest technologies. If hospital procedures were benchmarked as aggresively as new video card releases, we'd see much faster progress in the adoption of life-saving technology.

Brock said at October 28, 2005 11:19 AM:

Come to think of it, I'm excited to think about the day when surgery is more AI than human. Computers can upgrade their software as quickly as a download, and upgrade their hardware as quickly as UPS can get them the new parts. The learning curve would be as quick as a neural net, shared over the internet, learning in parallel with ever surgery and simulation.

Considering that last year no AI car got more than 5 miles in the DARPA challenge, and this year seven cars completed the race, I think this will come to pass more quickly than most realize.

eric said at October 28, 2005 12:47 PM:

brock i think your enthusiasm is great but it will take the FDA 10 years just to approve these robots, let alone the next generation. regulations are likely to only get worse not better. and in the meantime, growing numbers of people who could have been saved will die and inventors will be put off from inventing by the costs and difficulties in getting their creations to market.

Spiny Widgmo said at October 28, 2005 1:05 PM:

Sell to the third world. Low regulation. Low barriers to innovation.
Apply to veterinary medicine. Low regulation. Low lawsuit risk. Low barriers to innovation. Reasonable demand.

When the technology deomnstrates it can save lives and control costs the hide bound bureaucrats in the US can be shamed into approving these technologies.

Added benefit from this technology, if you can get communication technology to be effectively failure proof during an operation (

Randall Parker said at October 28, 2005 1:11 PM:

I agree with Spiny. The technology will get used in China, India, and in veterinary practices.

Plus, I bet the US military will go for it. Does the US military need FDA approval for emergency medical kits?

Brock said at October 28, 2005 5:30 PM:

Randall,

No. The US Military does not require the FDA approval. They've been given free reign to protect soldiers from dying, while the FDA has been given free reign to "protect" citizens from new technology.

Patrick said at October 29, 2005 3:59 AM:

And so the already starting trend of 1st world citizens not being able to get treatment that is available in the 2nd world (if not the 3rd) will continue.

I forsee a growing black market. Not to mention the wage differentials that apply to having an Indian doctor do your operation by remote control. (And insurance premium differentials)

Bob Badour said at October 29, 2005 6:46 AM:

This sort of technology will be very useful during future pandemics. We could then use 'workplace cocooning' of surgeons to keep them from getting infected and still have them performing surgeries at nearby facilities.

And then think of the productivity increase. No more scrubbing for 10 minutes between surgeries. The rooms would still need sterilization, but the doctors would not. Then again, perhaps that's why the aliens use sarcophagi in all those movies? It would seem easier to sterlize such a small sealable operating room. Given the sterilizing effects of UV, perhaps one day we will find an actual use for tanning beds.

For the battle-field and for first responders, though, what we really need is a spray-on, expanding, antiseptic, analgesic foam that stiffens quickly to help keep the patient motionless and pain-free. A medic could then set the broken bones, line up the severed parts, toss in some surgical robots and spray on the operating room. Getting bounced around will remain a bit of a problem until the bots become small enough to have very little inertia, though.

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