The Essential Sensors Improving the Accuracy and Reliability of Surgical Robots

June 03, 2020 by Luke James

Although robots may one day be omnipresent in operating theatres, speaking to AAC, EU Automation’s Mark Howard says that we are still “years away” from seeing this.

With technological advancements expected to completely change the healthcare field in the coming years, the surgical robotics market is expected to capture a significant portion of the changing medical industry.

Thanks to achievements by electronic and design engineers, we have recently seen an uptick in the number of precision robots that have been able to make minimally invasive surgical procedures a reality, and these are being used more often across a wide range of procedures.

These minimally invasive and more “basic” procedures are just the beginning, though. What if robots were able to replace human surgeons—who have an inherent potential to get something wrong—when it comes to more complex procedures? 


The Future of Surgery

This is a future that many industry specialists and commentators, including industrial automation equipment supplier EU Automation’s Mark Howard, believe will be the reality. In the future, characterized by the convergence of AI, machine learning, and data acquisition, robotic-assisted surgery will continue to spearhead advancements in key areas of healthcare. 

“In robotic-assisted surgery, doctors currently sit behind a controller and operate computerized instruments as they perform minimally invasive surgery. Now, scientists have the potential to make robotic surgery more accurate and accessible with the use of artificial intelligence and improved connectivity. Manufacturers see the need to use deep learning data to automate rather than behavior programmed by an engineer that does not know all the scenarios. Thanks to this data, AI can determine patterns within surgical procedures to improve best practices and robots’ control accuracy.” he said, speaking to All About Circuits. 


Diagram of glove-based HMI.

Haptic sensors could be placed in a so-called "smart glove" to create a human-machine interface (HMI). Pictured: A diagram of a glove-based HMI for diversified applications. Image credited to Minglu Zhu.


Making Strides with Sensors

Additionally, new capabilities such as haptic sensing (kinaesthetic communications), made possible by utilizing tactile sensors to measure exerted forces, could allow surgeons to see and “feel” a body’s tissue from an entirely separate location. Due to challenges presented by control loop stability, among other things, haptic feedback has been unutilized. Until design engineers can perfect it, other solutions such as tactile devices and audio to indirectly deliver haptic information are being used. 

Aside from haptic sensors, others such as accelerometers and gyroscopes for position tracking and torque sensors for motion control will help robot-assisted technology make great strides by improving accuracy and reliability. With enough innovation, surgical robotics could be used to perform tasks that humans cannot.

“For example, flexible robots with high-power computing and sub-millimetre precision will be able to perform minimally invasive surgery, control complex instruments and navigate through spaces in the body that a human surgeon can’t access. These robots could perform other advanced tasks, such as creating real-time 3D maps inside the body as they self-navigate, relying on a patient’s medical data and imaging information.” Howard added. 

And as exciting as all this sounds, “we are years away” from seeing robots perform any sort of procedure, he admits.