In this episode of Here’s an Idea, we speak to three researchers who are finding ways to automate surgical tasks, from suturing, to spotting tumors, to operating one of the biggest machines in surgery today: The Da Vinci.

Episode Highlights:

  • (1:06) What is the Da Vinci?
  • (4:25) A 'Superhuman' Robotic Test: The Peg Transfer
  • (12:04) Meet 'STAR,' A Suturing Robot
  • (16:28) Robots, Guided by MRI

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Testing the Da Vinci, with 'Superhuman' Speed: The Da Vinci system, fixed with instruments and a stereo camera. allows a trained surgeon to sit behind a console and remotely control the tools with a joystick and foot pedals. Ken Goldberg and his team at UC Berkeley  want to automate some of the Da Vinci's functions.

In part 1 of our episode, Goldberg explains how he and the students got the Da Vinci to autonomously perform a training exercise — the peg transfer test — with "superhuman" speed and accuracy.

Learn more about Ken Goldberg and his lab and research at UC Berkeley . (Read 50 papers  on surgical robotics.)

A 'STAR' Suturer: While robots won't be performing full surgeries anytime soon, an operation's tedious subtasks could use some automation. Take, suturing, for example. Axel Krieger from Johns Hopkins created a technology called the Smart Tissue Autonomous Robot . STAR automates the process of suturing together two segments of an intestine after a portion of the organ is removed.

What makes the STAR so "smart" exactly? Part 2 of our episode reviews how the robot follows carefully placed infrared biomarkers.

MRI-Guided Robots: In 2015, Greg Fischer, along with fellow researchers at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, built a robot that finds its way through a patient to potentially dangerous tissue, using real-time images from an MRI as a navigational guide . Looking at real-time MRI images, the doctor can identify parts of the prostate, for example, that appear suspicious, and direct the robotic tool – specifically the needle of the robotic tool — to those spots for imaging or biopsies. 

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