Timothy Lee, a student at Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, NC, has built a robotic painting arm that can replicate the lines and shapes a surgeon makes with a scalpel using a paintbrush and canvas. His creative invention, a blend of art and science, could one day lend doctors a hand in practicing complex, robot-assisted surgeries without stepping foot in an operating room.

He says that painting and surgery have more in common than initially meets the eye. A painter is nimble and precise with brushstrokes just as a surgeon must be nimble and precise with a scalpel.

With the support of a grant from the Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities (URECA) Center, Lee teamed up with Craig Hamilton, an associate professor of biomedical engineering at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, and began work on his mechanical arm.

Lee ordered parts online and assembled the arm but programming it to learn to paint was far more difficult. After weeks of programming, he says, the robot could paint shapes and lines in a particular color. From there it was much easier to train it to paint something like a sunset or a house without input from a human operator. Then he taught the robot to paint lines and shapes corresponding to locations of human organs.

Currently, surgical robots are controlled by a human operator and do not perform procedures autonomously. While Lee’s robot may never be put to work in an operating room, it and other robots like it could one day help researchers to design fully autonomous robotic surgeons.

In addition to teaching the robot to paint autonomously, Lee also explored the idea of using his robot as a training tool for surgeons who need practice operating a robotic surgical arm.

“At the Wake Forest Medical Center, doctors use replica bodies to help train surgeons to use the da Vinci system,” Lee says. “These replicas are pretty expensive compared to my robotic arm, which cost around $1,500.”

In April, Lee will represent Wake Forest at the ACC Meeting of the Minds, an event where outstanding undergraduate researchers from each ACC university gather at one member university to present their research, either verbally or as a poster. =