Wearable robotic tools being developed for surgery

A team of researchers led by the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) is developing a wearable robotic system for keyhole surgery that will offer surgeons natural and dexterous movement as well as the ability to ‘sense’, ‘see’, control and safely navigate through the surgical environment.

The €4million research project, funded by the European Commission under the HORIZON 2020 scheme, will be led by Professor Sanja Dogramadzi (Bristol Robotics Laboratory (BRL) and UWE Bristol) with nine partners including North Bristol NHS Trust, Bristol Urological Institute and the Translational Biomedical Research Centre (TBRC) at the University of Bristol.

Keyhole surgery for some clinical applications is replacing the traditional ‘open access’ approach, and has been associated with patient benefits such as reduced blood loss, fewer infections and faster recovery. More advanced robotic systems have the potential to replace laparoscopic tools for keyhole surgery in several clinical areas if developed with integrated better vision, precision and ergonomic systems.

Prof Dogramadzi and the pan-EU research team have identified a need for better tools in robot-assisted keyhole surgery to support and enhance the surgeon’s performance in urology, cardiovascular and orthopaedic fields and to expand the potential for this technology to more complex surgical procedures.

Three key pieces of hardware will be the starting points in developing the system. Exoskeletons will fit over the surgeon’s hands, which will control the instruments inside the body – a newly developed surgical ‘gripper’ which mimics the thumb and two fingers of the hand.

The instrument, which goes inside the body, will have haptic abilities, allowing the surgeon to ‘feel’ the tissues and organs inside the body, just like they do during conventional surgery.

The wearable exoskeleton on the surgeon’s hand will enable movement that is more intuitive as well as giving the surgeon the sense of touch.

In addition, the researchers will develop smart glasses that enable the surgeon to have a realistic view of what is taking place inside the body while using the advanced robotic tools. The smart glasses, will allow surgeons to position themselves anywhere in the operating theatre.

Prof Dogramadzi said: “We want to give existing processes a more natural interface - operating surgeons will not have to do any unusual or unnatural movement. They will be able to use their hands as they would in open incision surgery. This also means that training to use the robotic technology for surgery will be quicker.”

Rapid prototyping will be used to make prototype tools for the surgeons whose feedback will be incorporated into the next stages of design.

Prof Dogramadzi added: “We hope our research into designing this wearable system will help to expand the range of surgical procedures that can use robotic assisted systems so that more patients and hospitals can gain the benefits from this type of surgery.”