Top applications for robots in medicine include telepresence, surgical assistance, and rehabilitation.
According to a recent report by Credence Research, the global medical robotics market was valued at $7.24 billion in 2015 and is expected to grow to $20 billion by 2023. A key driver for this growth is demand for using robots in minimally/noninvasive surgeries, especially for neurologic, orthopedic, and laparoscopic procedures.
As a result, a wide range of robots are being developed to serve in a variety of roles within the medical environment. Robots specializing in human treatment include surgical robots and rehabilitation robots. The field of assistive and therapeutic robotic devices is also expanding rapidly. These include robots that help patients rehabilitate from serious conditions like strokes, empathic robots that assist in the care of older or physically/mentally challenged individuals, and industrial robots that take on a variety of routine tasks, such as sterilizing rooms and delivering medical supplies and equipment, including medications.
Below are six top uses for robots in the field of medicine today.
Physicians use robots to help them examine and treat patients in rural or remote locations, giving them a “telepresence” in the room. “Specialists can be on call, via the robot, to answer questions and guide therapy from remote locations,” writes Dr. Bernadette Keefe, a Chapel Hill, NC-based healthcare and medicine consultant. “The key features of these robotic devices include navigation capability within the ER, and sophisticated cameras for the physical examination.”
2. Surgical Assistants
These remote-controlled robots assist surgeons with performing operations, typically minimally invasive procedures. “The ability to manipulate a highly sophisticated robotic arm by operating controls, seated at a workstation out of the operating room, is the hallmark of surgical robots,” says Keefe. Additional applications for these surgical-assistant robots are continually being developed, as more advanced 3DHD technology gives surgeons the spatial references needed for highly complex surgery, including more enhanced natural stereo visualization, combined with augmented reality.
3. Rehabilitation Robots
These play a crucial role in the recovery of people with disabilities, including improved mobility, strength, coordination, and quality of life. These robots can be programmed to adapt to the condition of each patient as they recover from strokes, traumatic brain or spinal cord injuries, or neurobehavioral or neuromuscular diseases such as multiple sclerosis. Virtual reality integrated with rehabilitation robots can also improve balance, walking, and other motor functions.
4. Medical Transportation Robots
Supplies, medications, and meals are delivered to patients and staff by these robots, thereby optimizing communication between doctors, hospital staff members, and patients. “Most of these machines have highly dedicated capabilities for self-navigation throughout the facility,” states Manoj Sahi, a research analyst with Tractica, a market intelligence firm that specializes in technology. “There is, however, 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.”
5. Sanitation and Disinfection Robots
With the increase in antibiotic-resistant bacteria and outbreaks of deadly infections like Ebola, more healthcare facilities are using robots to clean and disinfect surfaces. “Currently, the primary methods used for disinfection are UV light and hydrogen peroxide vapors,” says Sahi. “These robots can disinfect a room of any bacteria and viruses within minutes.”
6. Robotic Prescription Dispensing Systems
The biggest advantages of robots are speed and accuracy, two features that are very important to pharmacies. “Automated dispensing systems have advanced to the point where robots can now handle powder, liquids, and highly viscous materials, with much higher speed and accuracy than before,” says Sahi.
Advanced robots continue to be designed for an ever-expanding range of applications in the healthcare space. For example, a research team led by Gregory Fischer, an associate professor of mechanical engineering and robotics engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, is developing a compact, high-precision surgical robot that will operate within the bore of an MRI scanner, as well as the electronic control systems and software that go with it, to improve prostate biopsy accuracy.
To develop robots that can work inside an MRI scanner, Fischer and his team have had to overcome several significant technical challenges. Since the MRI scanner uses a powerful magnet, the robot, including all of its sensors and actuators, must be made from nonferrous materials. "On top of all this, we had to develop the communications protocols and software interfaces for controlling the robot, and interface those with higher-level imaging and planning systems," says Fischer. “The robot must be easy for a non-technical surgical team to sterilize, set up, and place in the scanner. This all added up to a massive systems integration project which required many iterations of the hardware and software to get to that point."
In other research, virtual reality is being integrated with rehabilitation robots to expand the range of therapy exercise, increasing motivation and physical treatment effects. Exciting discoveries are being made with nanoparticles and nanomaterials. For example, nanoparticles can traverse the “blood-brain barrier.” In the future, nanodevices can be loaded with “treatment payloads” of medicine that can be injected into the body and automatically guided to the precise target sites within the body. Soon, ingestible, broadband-enabled digital tools will be available that use wireless technology to help monitor internal reactions to medications.
“Existing technologies are being combined in new ways to streamline the efficiency of healthcare operations,” says Keefe. “While at the same time, emerging robotic technologies are being harnessed to enable intriguing breakthroughs in medical care.”
Mark Crawford is an independent writer.