World’s smallest surgical robot mimics the human arm

The Guardian has reported that Cambridge Medical Robotics has developed the world’s smallest surgical robot which could transform everyday operations for tens of thousands of patients.

From a converted pig shed in the Cambridgeshire countryside, a team of a hundred scientists and engineers have used low cost technology originally developed for mobile phones and space industries to create the first robotic arm specifically designed to carry out keyhole surgery.

The robot, called Versius, mimics the human arm and can be used to carry out a wide range of laparoscopic procedures, including hernia repairs, colorectal operations, and prostate and ear, nose and throat surgery, in which a series of small incisions are made to circumvent the need for traditional open surgery. This reduces complications and pain after surgery and speeds up recovery times for patients. The robot is controlled by a surgeon at a console guided by a 3D screen in the operating theatre.

Although surgical robots already exist, the new creation is much easier to use, takes up about a third of the space of current machines and will be no more expensive than non-robotic keyhole surgery, according to Cambridge Medical Robotics. The company’s chief executive Martin Frost said “Having robots in the operating theatre is not a new idea. The problem at the moment is that they are phenomenally expensive – not only do they cost £2m each to buy but every procedure costs an extra £3,000 using the robot – and they are very large. Many hospitals have to use the operating theatre around the robot. Their size can also make them difficult for the surgical team to use. They are also poorly utilised; they are only really used for pelvic surgery, and can’t be easily adapted to other types of surgery. In some hospitals they are only being used once every other day.”

He said for robots to revolutionise surgery, they need to be versatile, easy to use and small so that surgical staff can move them around the operating room or between operating theatres, or pack them away when they are not being used. He said “Our robot does all of this and is the first robotic arm to be designed specifically for laparoscopic surgery.”

One of the key benefits of the robot is that it works like a human arm and contains technology that detects resistance to make sure the right amount of force is used when the instruments are inside the patient. Luke Hares, chief technology officer at Cambridge Medcal Robotics said “When science wants to solve a problem, it often turns to nature. We took our inspiration from the human arm, the greatest surgical tool in history.”

Cambridge Medical Robotics looked at the joints within the human arm, in particular the wrist, mapping how they performed a role to allow the hand to move so precisely and flexibly. They then replicated these movements in Versius. Luke Hares said “Whereas traditional industrial robotic arms are large and the wrists have three joints, our robot is the same size as a human arm and has four wrist joints, giving the surgeon an unprecedented level of freedom to operate on the patient from whatever angle they want, versatility and reach.”

The company used electronics from mobile phones to help Versius “think” and process information, and gear box technology originally designed for the space industry to help it move. Luke Hares said “The other great benefit is that the robot doesn’t tire like a surgeon can.”

The robot will be launched next spring and, once surgeons are trained, it should be available for procedures on patients by the end of next year. Cambridge Medical Robotics said it was already working with a number of NHS and private hospitals to introduce the robots. The current global market for surgical robots is worth approximately $4bn a year but this is expected to grow to $20bn by 2024.

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