May 7th, 2016 – From the print edition: Science and technology
They don’t drink, they don’t get tired and they don’t go on strike. To hospital managers, the idea of robots operating on patients without human intervention is an attractive one. To patients, though, the crucial question is, “are they better than human surgeons?” Surgery is messy and complicated. A routine operation can become life-threatening in minutes.
Such considerations have meant that the role of robots in operating theatres has been limited until now to being little more than motorised, precision tools for surgeons to deploy—a far cry from the smart surgical pods and “med-bays” of science fiction. But a paper published this week in Science Translational Medicine, by Peter Kim of the Children’s National Health System in Washington, DC, and his colleagues, brings the idea of real robot surgeons, operating under only the lightest of human supervision, a step closer. Though not yet let loose on people, it has successfully stitched up the intestines of piglets.
To build their robodoc, dubbed the Smart Tissue Autonomous Robot (STAR), Dr Kim and his team fitted a robotic arm with an articulated suturing tool and a force sensor to detect the tension in the surgical thread during the operation. They equipped the arm with cameras that could create a three-dimensional image, to guide it as it deployed the tool, and also a thermal-imaging device to help distinguish between similar-looking tissues. A computer program written by the team controlled the arm. This had a repertoire of stitches, knots and manuvers that permitted it to plan and carry out a procedure, known as anastomosis, which involves sewing together two parts of a bodily tube.