The scanner could find application in various medical settings, according to the researchers. They said the scanner ultimately might enable surgeries to be performed without surgeons, a capability that could prove valuable in space stations or other remote locations.
"It's the first time, to our knowledge, that anyone has used the information in a 3-D ultrasound scan to actually guide a robot," said Stephen Smith, professor of biomedical engineering at Duke's Pratt School of Engineering.
Smith and Eric Pua, a Pratt graduate student who participated in the research, reported the findings in the cover article of the November 2006 issue of the journal IEEE Transactions on Ultrasonics, Ferroelectrics and Frequency Control http://www.ieee-uffc.org/tr/covers/2006toc.htm#nov06.
The work was supported by the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.
In their demonstration, the researchers used 3-D ultrasound images to pinpoint in real time the exact location of targets in a simulated surgical procedure. That spatial information then guided a robotically controlled surgical instrument right to its mark.
The scanner could be coupled to the surgeon-operated robots that are being increasingly used for performing minimally invasive "laparoscopic" surgeries on the heart or other organs, Smith said. In such operations, surgeons work through tiny "keyhole" incisions, and the new scanner would provide surgeons a more realistic view of the organ they are working on.
"All the technology is available," Smith said. "We just need to make the connections between the ultrasound scanner and the robots now in use by surgeons. There are no technological barriers to doing that right away."