Written by IEEE | August 31, 2018

Not too long ago, having an operation often meant getting a large, gory incision. Thanks in part to advances in robotics, many operations can now be performed through a keyhole opening, offering less pain and a quicker recovery, obviously great upsides.

But this method of operating isn’t without its technical challenges; a primary one, as you might guess given the miniaturization of the process, is the ability to see and judge depth and movement in these tiny spaces.

Fortunately, the technical hurdles cleared in developing this technology have also given rise to optical automation, which researchers are using to help counteract the problem. With the right setup, automated imaging can facilitate surgeons’ planning and execution of these complex procedures.

According to a paper published in IEEE Robotics & Automation Magazine, two high-resolution imaging techniques, pCLE, and OCT, “offer visualization of cellular-scale tissue details in situ, providing a real-time alternative to conventional biopsy and histopathology.” Diagnostic and surgical procedures involving the gastrointestinal tract and organs stand to particularly benefit from these technologies.

However, the paper says, since the field of view is tiny (often less than 1mm), images need to get stitched together to be useful, which is problematic for the camera’s operator, who must make movements with submillimeter accuracy in order for the final image to line up. Aside from the images becoming unusable if they fail, there’s also the risk of tissue damage from the camera apparatus itself.

Researchers have turned to robotics to help solve the problem. Using an automated scanning framework, they’ve been able to create “continuous 2-D mosaics without gaps or discontinuities, which represent a common problem.” Additionally, the high-resolution image feed can be fused in real time and reconstructed at a much larger scale, giving the surgeon a 3-D view of the site on which they’re operating.

In addition to imaging and assisting in keyhole surgeries, researchers are working toward getting robots to function autonomously in the operating room, charting their own surgical course and even optimizing surgery schedules.

The IEEE Robotics & Automation Society has a Technical Committee on Surgical Robotics working to address the constantly emerging scientific and technical challenges that come along with these advances. Their efforts are helping to increase the performance, usage, and acceptance of surgical robots around the world.

To hear more about the growing role of robots in healthcare, visit our hot topic video series.

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