Like a self-driving car “navigating to a desired destination inside the body”, an autonomous robot has travelled through a beating, blood-filled heart to a leaky valve.
Bioengineers at Boston Children’s Hospital in Massachusetts built and demonstrated the robotic catheter technology, which they said could “raise the playing field” in surgical operation and ensure every doctor works like the best in their field.
Surgeons have operated internal robots using joysticks for more than a decade, and teams have used magnetism to steer tiny robots through the body. Instead, the new robot used an optical touch sensor developed in the laboratory of Pierre Dupont, chief of pediatric cardiac bioengineering at the hospital.
Utilising artificial intelligence and image processing algorithms, the sensor used a navigational technique called ‘wall following’ as it travelled through pigs’ hearts. The sensor sampled the dark, unfamiliar environment at regular intervals, ‘telling’ the catheter whether it was touching blood, the heart wall or a valve by analysing images from a tip-mounted camera. It also measured how hard the robot pressed, to stop it from damaging beating hearts.
Once the robotic catheter was in place, an experienced surgeon took control and inserted a plug to close the leaky valve. The device reportedly took roughly the same amount of time as a surgeon in repeated trials.
The technique could eliminate the need for fluoroscopic imaging, said Dupont, a method typically used in the operation despite exposing patients to ionising radiation. Looking ahead, he said that a global network of autonomous medical robots could reduce surgeon fatigue and allow them to focus on the most difficult manoeuvres, while shaaring data and continuously improving performance.
"This would not only level the playing field, it would raise it," says Dupont. "Every clinician in the world would be operating at a level of skill and experience equivalent to the best in their field. This has always been the promise of medical robots. Autonomy may be what gets us there."
The research was published in Science Robotics.
Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.
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