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article imageSurgical Robotics: The Next 25 Years

By Tim Sandle     Jul 17, 2017 in Science
Cambridge - A new report has cast a futuristic gaze towards surgical robots and autonomous systems over the next twenty-five years. The outcomes indicate an enhanced role for machines in making medical decisions and assisting surgeons in performing complex tasks.
The report comes from UK-RAS. The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) UK Robotics and Autonomous Systems Network (UK-RAS Network) was established in March 2015. The aim is to provide academic leadership in Robotics and Autonomous Systems (RAS) in the U.K. and overseas, and to expand collaboration with industry. EPSRC is the U.K.'s main agency for funding research in engineering and the physical sciences.
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In the future the UK-RAS Network is set to expand to include broader stakeholders, such as key national laboratories in the U.K. and leading collaborators in industry. As part of the preparations for its expansion, the network has looked towards the medical field and produced a report titled "Surgical Robotics: The Next 25 Years - Successes, Challenges, and the Road Ahead."
In the report the group acknowledges that medical robots, which cover the range from minimally invasive surgery, to targeted therapy; and from prosthetics to home assistance; represent one of the fastest growing sectors in the global medical devices sector. As an example, one of the key areas of medical robotics called out is the development of surgical robots for minimally invasive surgery and microsurgery.
A surgeon performs a sex change operation in this picture taken on November 11  2009
A surgeon performs a sex change operation in this picture taken on November 11, 2009
Christophe Archambault, AFP/File
As to the future, the report, embracing futurism, considers:
Smaller, smarter, safer devices: The authors' note that surgical robotics research is evolving towards the development of platforms for performing specific parts of the surgical workflow, as opposed to machines designed as fully fledged systems. This is likely to take the form of smart, miniaturised, mechatronically enhanced or robotically assisted surgical instruments. Examples are advanced imaging and sensing technologies designed for early diagnosis and interventions.
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Augmented vision, perception and control: This represents the field of computer-assistance to improve the surgeon’s activities by providing immersive visualization, stereoscopic high-definition images. As an example, improved vision and touch are seen as important additions to laparoscopic surgery. Through advances in computational technology robots are expected to become more aware of the surgical environment, and it is anticipated that robots will one day be allowed to perform "autonomously high-accuracy repetitive sub-tasks under supervision."
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Cellular-level intervention: It is predicted that surgical robots will be able to interact with pathology sites at microscopic levels to perform surgery through miniature end-effectors, or to deliver highly concentrated drugs. This is seen as particularly useful as medicine advances towards the micro and nanoscale.
Non-invasive approaches: Examples here include antibody-based tumor targeting methods. This requires machine learning to progress, since surgical robots need to establish what types of tissues are cancerous and the extent that cancerous growth has spread.
The essential message of the report is that, in the near future,medical practitioners will inevitably work closely with medical robots. If researchers and industry take the necessary steps now to gain better understanding of how they work the transition will become faster, easier and simpler.
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