Back in 1985, the best robotic surgeon we had was the Puma 560, a manipulator arm just barely more advanced than Rocky Balboa’s robo-butler. Just barely. The Puma was nevertheless revolutionary. It was the very first mechanical operator, progenitor to steady-handed robo-surgeons like the DaVinci system. But in the near future, robots will no longer be cutting into us — from the outside, at least.
Even as the current generation of robotic surgeons continues to shrink, with minuscule pincers and malleable toolsets capable of curling their way through our innards, the medical community is working to develop robotic surgical devices capable of operating autonomously, or at least remotely. This is due in part to expected shortages in qualified doctors, nurses and medical technicians over the next decade or so.
“By 2030, we estimate we’re going to need another 40 million health workers and we may be 15 to 18 million health workers short,” professor David Watters, head of surgery at Barwon Health, told Australia’s ABC.net last May. “The fact that we can get skilled procedures remotely to a patient will be of tremendous advantage to rural and remote communities and also low-income countries and low-middle-income countries that are struggling to train enough health workers to service their populations.”
Luckily, robots like the Smart Tissue Autonomous Robot (STAR), developed by a team at Johns Hopkins University, are already matching and exceeding the capabilities of their human counterparts. The STAR recently demonstrated its superior stitching abilities in both ex vitro operations and on live (albeit porcine) patients. But in the future, surgeons may not need to worry about closing up entry wounds at all — mostly because they’ll already be inside us when they get to work.
Ingestible cameras, such as the PillCam from Given Imaging, have been around for more than a decade. In fact, the technology was approved for use in some 80 countries before it earned FDA acceptance in 2014. These cameras send a series of high-speed images to doctors during their roughly eight-hour journey through the digestive system. What’s more, the PillCam can be guided — its course even halted and reversed — via an external magnet so that doctors can linger and better inspect anything they find.
But cameras are only the start. Last May, MIT CSAIL debuted a similar device except, instead of a camera, the robot carries a small magnet. Designed to be ingested orally, the device is constructed from folded, dried pig intestine. After the pill casing dissolves in the stomach’s acids, the robot unfurls itself and rattles around the gut, hopefully attracting and clinging to any loose batteries or other miscellaneous magnetic items that you may have swallowed. Given that Americans alone manage to eat upwards of 3,300 button batteries each year, these devices are sure to become a staple (or at least catch a few) at doctors offices in the near future.
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