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Surgical robots to provide open-source platform for medical robotics research

In a basement on the University of Washington campus perch seven identical robots. Named Raven, each has two winglike arms that end in tiny claws designed to perform surgery on a simulated patient.

Soon the robots will be flown to campuses across the country, where they will provide the first common research platform to develop the future of surgical robotics.

Members of the public are invited to view the robots at an open house Friday, Jan. 13, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the UW's Allen Center for Computer Science and Engineering.

After a round of final tests, five of the systems will be shipped to medical robotics researchers at Harvard University, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of California, Los Angeles. The other two systems will remain at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and UW.

"With everyone working on the same, open-source platform we can more easily share new developments and innovations," said Blake Hannaford, a UW professor of electrical engineering.

While some groups have built their own devices, this slows progress in the field.

"Researchers and funding agencies are tired of one-off robots they want to pursue projects that use standardized platforms," Hannaford said. "This is where the field is going."

The UW group is making its software work with the Robot Operating System, a popular open-source robotics code, so groups can easily connect the Raven to other devices. The robots were developed by Hannaford and Jacob Rosen, a former UW faculty member who is now an associate professor of computer engineering at UC Santa Cruz.

Until now, most research on surgical robotics in the United States has meant creating new software for commercial robots.

"Academic researchers have had limited access to these proprietary systems," Rosen said. "We are changing that by providing high-quality hardware developed within academia. Each lab will start with an identical, fully operational system, but they can change the hardware and software and share new developments and algorithms, while retaining intellectual property rights for their own innovations."

A grant from the National Science Foundation paid for the new devices.

The original Raven robot was completed in 2005 and used for UW research on telerobotic surgery, in which commands are sent over the Internet.

The latest version, the Raven II, has more compact electronics and dexterous hands that can hold wristed surgical tools, like the newest commercial machines. A surgeon sitting at a screen can look through Raven's cameras and guide the instruments to perform a task such as suturing. The system, while not approved by the Food and Drug Administration, is precise enough to support research on advanced robotic-surgery techniques. The new robots were designed and built by Rosen's group in Santa Cruz. The UW group built the electronics and software; undergraduates helped wire circuit boards, assemble the electronic components and perform tests.

The hope is that the common, open-source platform will allow research groups to share software, replicate experiments and collaborate. Participating schools' specialties include:

  • Harvard mechanical engineers working on "beating-heart" surgery, where a robot compensates for the movement of a beating heart so a surgeon can operate as if on a static surface.
  • Johns Hopkins computer scientists working on image analysis, superimposing the surgeon's field of view on standard medical images.
  • UW research on force feedback, using machine intelligence to create barriers around things a surgeon needs to avoid, and attractive force fields around objects the surgeon wants to touch.

All projects are aimed at speeding up procedures, reducing errors and improving patient outcomes. Four more universities are already in line to get the system. The original Raven robot will move to UW Medicine's Institute for Simulation and Interprofessional Studies for use by medical researchers there.

"I see huge potential in surgical robotics for incorporating new instruments, more procedures, allowing for remote surgeries, and doing collaborative surgery between multiple surgeons in different locations," said collaborator Dr. Thomas Lendvay, a UW associate professor of urology and a pediatric urologist at Seattle Children's Hospital. "Having everyone working on the same, open-source robot will help to make these happen more quickly."

Contact: Hannah Hickey
University of Washington

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