In October of 2010, the first all-robotic surgery reportedly took place at Montreal General Hospital in Montreal, Canada. Intuitive Surgical’s da Vinci surgical robot worked in conjunction with the McSleepy anesthesia robot to perform a prostatectomy.

A prototype of a miniature robotic fly, about 0.04
Robotic surgery may be most closely associated with prostatectomies, but researchers across the world are working to develop an impressive range of medical applications for robots. The medical robots of the future will serve various functions, from highly visible roles (such as a robotic scrub nurse), down to invisible ones (like delivering drugs directly to infected tumors in the body).

Unfortunately, prototypes may be slow to progress from the research stage into commercial development. In order to ensure that concepts are able to translate into clinically feasible products, robotics engineers might consider learning more about medicine, according to Dr. Nobuhiko Hata, PhD., associate professor and director of the Surgical Navigation and Robotics Laboratory at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School.

“Professional training specifically tailored to medical robotics, but with enough exposure to the reality of medicine, is highly needed,” said Dr. Hata. He cites nanotechnology, material science, chemistry, tissue engineering, and artificial organs as some of the areas he would like to study more in depth as he proceeds with his work.

While robots won’t displace human surgeons anytime soon, they are gaining recognition as potentially viable aids in the operating room and other medical applications. What follows is a sample of concepts in development that demonstrate the bright future of robots in medicine.

Miniature Robot Fly

Researchers at the Technion — Israel Institute of Technology have developed a prototype of a miniature robotic fly sized at about a millimeter in diameter and 14 millimeters long. It fits on the tip of a finger and is made out of biocompatible silicone and metal. In the future, researchers hope it will be able to enter the body to diagnose diseases and potentially deliver drugs directly to infected tumors.

The robot is based on micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS) technology and its micro legs are steered either by an external magnetic force or through an on-board actuation system. a magnet that is moved over the body from the outside. Researchers plan to add a tiny camera to the robot so it can potentially be used in brachytherapy, short-distance radiation therapy, which is commonly used to treat head, neck, and prostate cancer. Another next step is to scale the robot down to a tenth of its current diameter — about 100 microns.

Cardiac Therapy

The HeartLander, developed at the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, is a crawling robot that delivers minimally invasive therapy to the surface of the beating heart.
The HeartLander, a miniature mobile robot that delivers minimally invasive therapy to the surface of the beating heart, is under development at the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. The crawling robot features two body sections that are each 5 mm tall, 8 mm wide, and 10 mm long. Locomotion is made possible by a wire transmission that runs through the tether to offboard motors. A graphical interface shows the exact location of the robot on the heart; real-time location is measured using a miniature magnetic tracking sensor (microBIRD, Ascension Technology) located on the front body of the crawling robot.

The robot can be driven using a joystick, or it can automatically walk to a specific target location on the heart. It is inserted into the body through a skin incision directly below the sternum, providing direct access to the heart without requiring deflation of the left lung. The surgeon then makes another incision in the pericardium (the sac that encloses the heart) and places the robot directly on the surface of the heart.

The HeartLander uses suction to adhere to the epicardial (outer) surface of the heart, a technique used by FDA-approved medical devices that stabilize the heart. The vacuum pressure is monitored and controlled by the computer.