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Best of 2009

Building a Mobile Surgery Robot

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Seattle Children’s surgeon Dr. Tom Lendvay is helping UW engineers develop a portable surgical system that can be operated remotely. 


Robot Machine 220x130When engineers at the University of Washington (UW) BioRobotics Lab asked Dr. Tom Lendvay  to help them build a portable surgical robot, he was happy to lend a hand.

“The engineers know how to design the robot,” Lendvay says, “but they don’t know what surgeons want to feel when operating the controls, how much range of motion they want, what sort of capabilities they need.”

Lendvay does. A pediatric urologist and surgeon at Seattle Children’s Hospital, Lendvay has extensive experience performing robot-assisted laparoscopy with the hospital’s da Vinci Surgical System — experience UW engineers count on as they test and tweak their prototype.

“It’s really important to have medical collaborators like Tom who can tell us what they need,” says Blake Hannaford, co-director of the UW BioRobotics Lab. “We watch him in the operating room and learn what we can, but that’s not the same thing as having hands-on experience.”

Robot 220x130Right now, the da Vinci Surgical System is the only surgical robot on the market. While it’s very effective in helping surgeons perform precise maneuvers in small openings, the system is bulky (1,200 pounds in aggregate), costly (nearly $1.8 million) and immobile.

Raven, as the UW’s surgical robot is called, offers a portable alternative that is lightweight (about 50 pounds), low-cost (about $150,000 to build) and — most importantly — capable of being guided remotely.

Raven enables the surgeon to control its robotic arms with a joystick from anywhere with an Internet connection. All the surgeon needs is a monitor and a laptop — almost any make will do, thanks to Raven’s reliance on open-source software and off-the-shelf technology.

Improving quality of care

Robot #4 220x130“There are several other surgical robot projects underway around the world and each of them is going in a slightly different direction, but we might be the leaders in advanced remote surgery,” Hannaford says. “We’re making a big splash with what we’re doing.”

Although not yet approved for human use, Raven’s combination of portability, affordability and remote capability suggests it will have wide application — everywhere from battlefields to disaster areas to isolated communities anywhere in the world. “Think about the global health implications,” Lendvay says. “We’ll be able to provide patients with care in places where it otherwise wouldn’t be available.”

Besides expanding access to care, Raven stands to improve quality of care, as Lendvay believes robot-assisted laparoscopy will become the preferred method of minimally invasive surgery. If need be, Raven will also be able to perform open surgery. 

Under development since 2002, Raven made important progress in 2009 as work continued on new laparoscopic instruments and on the gurney to which the robotic arms will be attached. Also, UW engineering students recently built a 1080 pixel, high-definition 3-D visual console.

As engineers continue to refine the Raven prototype, Lendvay looks for ways to make improvements that will benefit pediatric patients. He’s pushing for smaller instruments and for robotic arms that combine more functions so fewer openings — or ports — must be created in a child’s small body. 

Raven remains years away from use on humans, but the project team is ready to begin working toward approval from the Food and Drug Administration. It’s possible Raven could be ready to use on humans in five years, Lendvay says.

“We’ll be able to provide patients with care in places where it otherwise wouldn’t be available.” - Dr. Tom Lendvay