A mechanical engineer at Purdue University is teaming up with medical doctors in research aimed at developing less expensive, portable and versatile surgical robots that could become more common in operating rooms.
The researchers also are trying to incorporate tactile sensors into the robots to enable surgeons to feel tissue and better diagnose medical conditions.
“Robots dont perform the surgeries, but they are tools that give the surgeon more dexterity,” said William Peine, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering. “They let you get into confined spaces. You can eliminate hand tremor, and you can be very precise and delicate. Its as if the tips of the instruments become your fingertips.”
Current robots are complex and often require a large operating room and extra setup time. The researchers are trying to develop a new breed of surgical robot that is smaller and easier to use and can be set up in less time. This would give surgeons the option of deciding to use a robot on the fly if necessary, Peine said.
“Conventional surgical robots are the equivalent of a sophisticated racecar compared to your basic family sedan,” he said. “For some surgeries, you need a complex robot, but for many surgeries you do not. You wouldnt take an Indy racecar to the grocery store. What you really want is a hand tool that has robotic capability so that a surgeon could be in the middle of a procedure and be able to bring in the robot.”
A key innovation that is ideal for robotic surgery is a technique in which doctors insert thin probes called laparoscopic instruments into the body through small openings, eliminating the need to make large incisions that leave scars and require a lengthy recovery time, Peine said.
Without robots, surgeons manipulate the laparoscopic probes with a handle that remains outside the body. Using such handheld tools presents challenges to surgeons because it is difficult to manipulate the devices. For example, moving the handle in one direction causes the probe to move in the opposite direction inside the body.
“They call this the fulcrum effect,” Peine said. “If I move the handle up, the tip moves down inside the body. If I move it down, it moves up, left and right are reversed. But a robot can understand all the mechanics and compensate for them, eliminating the fulcrum effect.”
Robots also can be used to increase dexterity, which has