A smart eye-surgery robot, developed at the Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e) in the Netherlands, allows eye surgeons to operate with increased ease and precision on the retina and the vitreous humor of the eye. It also extends the effective period during which ophthalmologists can carry out these intricate procedures.

Fig. 1 – Thijs Meenink and his eye-surgery robot, which includes an instrument changer that would potentially reduce procedure time. (Photo: Bart van Overbeeke)
Eye operations such as retina repairs or treating a detached retina demand high precision. In most cases surgeons can only carry out these operations for a limited part of their career. The new system can filter out hand tremors that may arise with age, potentially increasing the effective working period of the ophthalmologist.

The robot consists of a ‘master’ and a ‘slave’. The ophthalmologist remains fully in control, and operates from the master using two joysticks. Two robot arms (the ‘slave’ developed by Meenink) copy the movements of the master and carry out the actual operation. The tiny needle-like instruments on the robot arms have a diameter of 0.5 mm, and include forceps, surgical scissors, and drains. The robot is designed such that the point at which the needle enters the eye is always at the same location, to prevent damage to the delicate eye structures.

Meenink designed an instrument changer for the slave that allows the robot arms to change instruments within a few seconds, effectively reducing the procedure time. Some eye operations can require as many as 40 instrument changes.

The surgeon’s movements are scaled down, increasing the precision of the movements; for example, each centimeter of motion on the joystick is translated into a movement of only one millimeter at the tip of the instrument.

Fig. 2 – The eye-surgery robot system provides haptic feedback and helps filter out hand tremors. (Photo: Bart van Overbeeke)
The master provides haptic feedback. Ophthalmologists currently work entirely by sight; with this system, they can feel the effects of their actions, increasing the precision of the procedure.

This technology also offers ergonomic benefits. While surgeons currently are bent statically over the patient, they will soon be able to operate the robot from a seated position. The slave is so compact and lightweight that operating room staff can easily carry it and attach it to the operating table.

Both slave and master are ready for use, and Meenink intends to optimize them in the near future. He also plans to investigate the market opportunities for the robot system.

The project was partly funded by financial support from the IOP Precision Technology program of the Ministry of Economic Affairs, Agriculture, and Innovation. The slave was developed with the help of the TU/e Equipment & Prototype Center, together with partners including TNO (Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research).