They hope that one day robots could take over the work of surgeons in operation theatres.
Gianluigi Petroni is one of the biomedical engineers at the SSSA Biorobotics Institute, he describes one of the procedures that robots could soon be performing:
“The robot enters the patient’s body via the navel. We firstly insert a small capsule. Then the two robotic arms are inserted through this capsule one by one. Once inside, the robot is configured to be remotely controlled by the surgeon.”
The robot sends 3D pictures to help the surgeon execute precise, non-invasive surgery on delicate parts of the human body without any visible scar.
Luca Morelli a Surgeon at Cisanello Hospital in Italy says the technology could prove extremely useful:
“Single port access surgery – surgery with a single small incision – has very few applications today. This technology could help to increase the number of applications, allowing us to perform more complex surgeries on the liver or the pancreas, organs that are too difficult reach with this kind of surgery at the moment.”
Under the knife
Researchers are now making plans to bring the prototype into real operation theatres but before this can become a reality there are a few things which need to be ironed out, as Arianna Menciassi, another SSSA Biorobotics Institute engineer explains:
“Before the robot can be mass produced, we first have to think about how to sterilise the motors. We will also have to do more research on some of its mechanical features so that they can become more reliable and less expensive.”
Gianluigi Petroni adds:
“Miniaturising the robot will demand smaller motors that will use less power. But we need the robot to demonstrate a certain strength for moving inside the human body. Solving this will be a huge challenge.”
Paolo Dario is the Coordinator of the ARAKNES project at the SSSA Biorobotics Institute. He spoke of their ultimate goal:
“A robotic surgery system has to be good, it has to meet realistic demands. It has to be reliable and not too expensive. But the technology has also got to be properly maintained so that the patients know they can trust it before going under the knife.”
But the European researchers are not content with developing robots to help surgeons with operations. They want robots to perform surgery on their own.
Moving to another research lab in Verona, euronews meets a group of scientists who think intelligent robots can be taught how to autonomously perform certain medical tasks like biopsies, incisions and suturing.
On show is a robotic arm that is being developed to puncture a model of a human abdomen on its own in search of a tumour in the kidney.
Researchers had to translate surgical techniques into numbers that were then transferred into the robot’s mechanical and software features.
Riccardo Muradore is the Control Engineer at the University of Verona where the robots are being developed, he says:
“We talked with surgeons to learn some of their techniques. But it is hard for them to accurately describe forces, speeds, the movements they perform during real surgery. So to solve this problem we also developed computer simulators to help us get the data we needed.”
The simulator helped the scientists to input realistic data to the robot to increase its understanding of different surgical scenarios and eventually to become more autonomous.
Monica Verga a biomedical engineer at San Raffaele Hospital has also been working on this project. She told us some of what they have achieved so far:
“This simulation helped us to define the requirements of a given surgery. But also to define some particular anatomical features of a kidney tumour: ‘how big is the average kidney tumour?’ or ‘what are the normal distances between human organs?’ We also tried to understand the biggest complications a surgeon can face during this kind of surgery, and how he might respond to those complications.”
Some researchers think surgeons will never disappear from operation theatres but see robots as a useful tool to increase the accuracy and efficiency of existing techniques.
Paolo Fiorini the Coordinator of the I-SUR project at the University of Verona says:
“A surgeon, a human being, is not always able to have the same perception, the same precision that surgical equipment and sensors can have. So an autonomous robot could eventually perform some surgical techniques while at the same time acquiring precise data that could complete what the surgeon can see and feel with his own eyes and hands.”