Breakthroughs in Medical Robotics: What to Expect in 2015

Medical robotics is no longer a new idea. The global medical robotics industry has experienced unprecedented growth in recent years, mostly due to rapid technological advancements and changes in patient mindset with regard to accepting robots’ involvement in their medical care.  A wide range of robots have emerged to serve various specialized roles in the medical environment. For simplicity, I will classify these robots into two broad categories and assess which of these robot types are best positioned for growth this year.  The two main categories are:

  1. Robots specializing in human treatment, including surgical robots, micro-bots, and rehabilitation robots
  2. Robots specializing in health facilities management, such as medical transportation and telepresence, sanitation and disinfection robots, and robotic prescription dispensing systems

Surgical robots are being developed to overcome the limitations of minimally-invasive surgery and to enhance the capabilities of surgeons. These robots are still very expensive and have issues with latency, hard manipulators, and 3D visualization of internal body parts, among other challenges. I expect to see major developments on two fronts in the surgical robotics space:

Soft robotic arms – Research labs around the world are currently trying to design such arms. One of the European research projects, STIFF-FLOP, has been able to achieve the complete robot so far. Modeled on biological manipulation like the octopus arm and the elephant trunk, with controlled stiffness and having the ability to squeeze through narrow gaps and openings, these robotic arms will increase the safety manifolds when being operated on soft human tissues.

Next generation 3DHD visualization and surface reconstruction – 3DHD technology gives surgeons the spatial references needed to do highly complex surgery by eliminating the lack of depth perception. This technology is available in the daVinci Surgical System. In the next generation of 3DHD, there will be more enhanced natural stereo visualization of the scene combined with augmented reality.

Micro-bots could be the next big thing in medical robots. These robots can be injected into the body without leaving a wound. These robots can deliver the medicine or operate at precise locations within the body, assisting doctors to diagnose and cure. Several key applications for these micro-bots are fighting cancer, minimally-invasive eye surgery, and monitoring insulin (nanobots). The first human clinical trial will begin this year. More futuristic applications for these robots could include repairing spinal cords and improving epilepsy.

Rehabilitation robots play a crucial role in improving the recovery of people with disabilities and contribute to improved mobility, strength, coordination, and quality of life. Tractica expects the global rehabilitation robotics market to grow rapidly in the next few years. Meaningful progress could take place in the following technology areas in 2015:

Neuro-rehabilitation technology / neuro-robotics combines neuroscience with artificial intelligence. According to Interactive Motion Technologies, neuro-rehabilitation technology will enable robots that can continually adapt to the individual conditions and challenges of each patient following stroke, spinal cord injury, traumatic brain injury, and disorders such as multiple sclerosis.

Virtual reality integrated with rehabilitation robots will expand the range of therapy by combining entertainment with task-oriented exercises for the patient, increasing motivation and physical treatment effects. It will be also used to diagnose and treat psychological conditions of patients along with the design of more effective and attractive rehabilitation training programs. Recently, Toyota has begun lending its “Walk Training Assist” and “Balance Training Assist” rehabilitation-aid partner robots for clinical trials in medical facilities across Japan.

Medical transportation robots like TUG Robot deliver supplies, medications, and meals while medical telepresence robots like RP-VITA are specially designed to cater to the needs of communication between doctors, hospital staff members, and patients. Most of these robots have highly dedicated capabilities for self-navigation throughout the facility. There is a need for highly advanced and cost-effective indoor navigation systems based on sensor fusion location technology in order to make the navigational capabilities of transportation robots more robust.

Sanitation and disinfection robots are gaining popularity after the rise of superbugs and the outbreak of epidemics like Ebola. Currently, the primary methods used for disinfection are UV light and hydrogen peroxide vapors. These robots can disinfect a room from deadly bacteria and viruses within minutes. This year, one can hope for more new methods of germ zapping incorporated with autonomous mobile robotic units.

Robotic prescription dispensing systems are automated dispensing equipment for pharmacies, and this space has seen a few recent developments. The new dispensing systems have enabled the robot to handle powder but also liquids and highly viscous material with much higher speed and accuracy than before.

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