Surgical robots have quickly become an important fixture in the operating room over the past 50 years, helping surgeons manipulate tools with greater precision. But they’re often bulky, their bodies and tools taking up unwanted space.
Enter a new invention by Harvard researcher Robert Wood and Robotics Engineer Hiroyuki Suzuki of Sony. This Harvard-Sony collaboration resulted in a miniature robot that’s already performed a difficult mock surgical task and was found to be significantly more accurate than a hand-controlled tool in a microscopic tracing test.
The robot is the size of a tennis ball and about the weight of a penny, according to Nature Machine Intelligence. Its design was inspired by origami.
To create the design, Suzuki and Wood used a “pop-up” technique: It works by layering and bonding materials that are then laser-cut in a pattern that allows a 3D shape to pop up. For this robot, the researchers used a parallelogram shape.
The robot has been through a series of tests, starting with a tracing test that evaluated its ability to trace a square smaller than the tip of a ballpoint pen, compared to the human ability to do the same under a microscope. Turns out that the robot reduced error by 68 percent: any reduction of human error is integral for vital surgical operations.
This robot’s size is an asset in performing delicate surgical tasks. Another test the researchers put the robot through was a mock surgical task, a procedure called retinal vein cannulation. The surgeon has to inject therapeutics into the back of the eyeball by inserting a needle into the eye. The mini-robot was able to perform the task without causing damage to the surrounding area.
The miniature aspect of the robot is also helpful if things go awry in a surgical procedure: the robot can be taken out of a patient’s body by hand. The researchers want to keep improving the robot for greater precision and sensory resolution.