Robots are increasingly present in the medical arena, and at this point are clearly here to stay. For more than 30 years, they have been supporting patients in healthcare facilities worldwide. The best-known system from the early “pioneer era” is the Da Vinci surgical robot. But despite all this “tradition”, the age of medical robotics has only just begun. Above all, sensitive and collaborative robots will shape the future of robotics in medicine.
Helpful supporters in medical applications
Robots are suitable for use in medicine for good reason, and can be distinguished by three broad areas of application. For example, robots can be used to move and handle heavy loads from place to place. They can also be used in processes that require high precision, for example to position an instrument for a biopsy. The third scenario is one in which a robot does the same things, but sustained over longer periods of time. An example of this is the early rehabilitation of bedridden patients, in which a pre-defined mobilisation is to be achieved, or during an operation in which precision needs to be maintained over a period of hours. In this way, robots can relieve strain on doctors and act as high-precision assistants.
For KUKA, the topic of robotics in medicine began with large industrial robots adapted to medical requirements. The advantages are obvious: Patients benefit from increased safety and precision of treatment. Clinics increase quality through results that can be reproduced at will and can also increase their productivity. “The large robots continue to play an important role in the medical field, but collaborative and sensitive robotics are becoming increasingly important – in other words, applications in which smaller, sensitive robots assist doctors and therapists hand-in-hand during treatment, so to speak,” says Axel Weber, Vice President of KUKA Medical Ro-botics. “This type of sensitive collaborative robotics will enable many more advantages in the medical environment in the future, with all sides complementing each other ideally and contributing their respective strengths. The physician or therapist plans, controls and monitors, while the robot takes over the strenuous, tiring or special precision tasks and, above all, those requiring sensitivity.”
Diverse applications become possible
It is already foreseeable how diverse the possible applications of these sensitive robots as part of medical products will be in the future. In rehabilitation, for example, a sensitive robot system is already being used today to move the legs of bedridden patients for training purposes. In cosmetic surgery, Artas iX, a product from Restoration Robotics, uses a sensitive robot and a special instrument to remove hair from the human head and reimplant it in a bald spot. Another example is MURAB, an EU-funded research project that uses a robot-controlled ultrasound scanner to increase the precision and effectiveness of biopsies in breast cancer diagnostics and helps to make more targeted use of expensive MRI images. And on its way to market maturity is CARLO® – an acronym for Cold Ablation, Robot-guided Laser Osteotomy – a medical product from the Swiss start-up AOT AG, which aims to radically improve nothing less than the results of bone surgery by replacing mechanical cutting instruments with non-contact “cold” laser photoablation and robotics.
“After preoperative planning by the physician, the sensitive robot is guided by a navigation system and performs the operation independently. In addition to the high precision, CARLO® enables freely defined, curved and functional cutting configurations that would not be possible with conventional instruments,” Axel Weber explains the function and advantages of the system. This makes this plannable procedure pre-cisar and less invasive and usually offers the patient shorter surgery and healing times.