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Is Truly Autonomous Robotic Surgery Far Off?

26 May

Robot Surgery

You’ve probably heard of robotic surgery. Sure sounds cool and very much like Star Trek. I mean, Bones could do this in his sleep. Right?

But robotic surgery in its current iteration is actually more “remote” surgery. It’s still performed by a surgeon but he sits across the room from the patient at a console where he manipulates handles that in turn do the surgery. A series of lights, cameras, and instruments are inserted through cannulae into the patient, and the surgeon manipulates the instruments under visual guidance and performs the procedure not unlike he would if he were standing next to the patient. This is very expensive equipment as you might imagine.

But, distance can prove a problem here. Time lag is never a good thing in surgery. The surgeon needs everything to happen in real time, particularly if an emergency arises or things go wrong. There is no time for delay under these circumstances.

Think about space travel. Let’s say, that a colony is being constructed on Mars. The initial explorers would be few in number and would have skills more related to space travel and geology and other scientific endeavors. Having a surgeon and a well-equipped operating room might not be possible. Not to mention, most surgeons are not trained to do all procedures – – or at least they are not comfortable with doing them. Robotic surgery could eliminate this problem. But not in its current form. For example, what if a surgeon is performing a gallbladder removal using a robotic device? The patient is on Mars; the surgeon is on Earth. The time lag for instructions to travel the roughly 250,000,000 miles back and forth would be daunting. Currently, communication with the various Rovers that are roaming around the red planet pass through one or more satellite systems and can take anywhere from three or four minutes up to 20 or 25 minutes. In surgery, such delay could prove catastrophic.

The solution, of course, is a completely autonomous robotic surgeon. One that can perform the surgery – – from skin to skin as surgeons like to say – – on its own. One that does not require any ongoing instructions or feedback. One that “sees” what is needed and performs all the needed tasks to complete the surgical procedure. Very heady stuff.

But such research is ongoing right now. A system known as the Smart Tissue Autonomous Robot (STAR) is in development. It’s in its beginning stages and therefore still fairly crude but it is a step in the right direction.

In my second Dub Walker thriller, Hot Lights, Cold Steel, the arena of robotic surgery in the hands of a megalomaniac is in play. Dub and crew, of course, must uncover what is going on and track down the culprits.

 

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