How will surgical robots change hospital power requirements?

In January 2018, the NHS invited companies to tender for a contract to provide £300m worth of surgical robots to surgeries across the UK. With it now only a matter of time before robots become commonplace in UK hospitals, Steve Hughes, managing director of medical power component manufacturer REO UK, explores the power demands they will bring with them.

After hours spent in a crowded waiting room, you’re relieved to be beckoned through to surgery by a nurse. Dishevelled, anxious and mildly frustrated at the wait, you shuffle through as the nurse assures you that Dr Vinci will make the surgery quick and painless.

Upon entering the room and lying upon the operating table, the nurse fiddles with a touch screen medical record and the surgeon sits with their back to you as anaesthesia is applied. While slipping out of consciousness, you spot a mechanical web of surgical instruments creep into position above you like a spider. Meet Dr Vinci, a da Vinci surgical robot specially designed to precisely deliver minimally invasive surgery.

It might still sound far-fetched today but, besides the odd choice of robot name, we’re not too far from this becoming a reality. It’s been almost two decades since the first da Vinci surgical robot was used in a London hospital. While the number of NHS prostate cancer centres offering robotic surgery more than tripled between 2010 and 2017, the uptake of surgical robots in the UK has been relatively slow.

That looks set to change with the NHS’ recent £300m contract for surgical robots. In REO UK’s recent whitepaper exploring the state of the medical technology sector, we explored why these systems have grown in popularity as a way of improving surgical accuracy and reducing healing times in certain operations.

However, the rise of surgical robots makes good power quality a necessity. The last thing you’d want during a surgery is for the da Vinci robot to lose power due to excessive electrical harmonics in a hospital’s power network. As healthcare technology develops, this will unfortunately become increasingly common.

The rise of electronic devices in hospital environments — like the touch screen tablets used by nurses to access medical records — and switch-mode power supplies (SMPS) used in the associated chargers create power quality problems. In particular, they can lead to harmonic distortion and electromagnetic interference (EMI) that can wreak havoc on electrical networks.

Fortunately, there is a solution to this. As touched upon in our medical whitepaper, design and electrical engineers can isolate critical medical systems from the mains networks using isolating transformers, such as the REOMED range of isolating medical transformers.

The transformers allow safe galvanic separation between the primary and secondary electrical circuits, which limits the electrical leakage and the interference to other devices. Likewise, it keeps the equipment safe from poor power quality introduced to a network by mains-connected consumer devices — ensuring optimum performance.

Design engineers should integrate these transformers into the design of a surgical robot, or electrical engineers can integrate them into the setup in the surgery. This means it’s never too late to improve the power quality of surgical robot systems.

By keeping surgical robots safely isolated from mains networks, there’s little risk that you’ll awake from surgery to find doctors and nurses frantically trying to restore power to a limp Dr Vinci. Instead, you’ll awaken peacefully in a hospital bed with minimal trauma and a shorter road to recovery.