On March 20, 2007, in Uncategorized

It has been a while since we brought to your attention any breakthroughs in robotics. In part, that is because we decided to focus more pragmatically (but not exclusively) on breakthroughs that are relatively imminent, compared to scientific and technological breakthroughs in the lab that may be years away from a patient near you.

We’re not bringing you many robotics breakthroughs today, either, but we would draw to your attention a nice and concise paper commissioned by the Office of Science and Innovation of the UK government’s Department of Trade and Industry, summarizing the state of robotics and how the field is shaping up to deliver helper robots of various kinds tomorrow. (Note: The link here goes straight to the source, not to a digest.

A new robot is sufficiently self-aware to be able to reconfigure its gait to suit almost any circumstance, including losing one of its four legs.

Stereotactics – the use of 3-D images and computer-guided magnets to navigate the vasculature – is a disruptive innovation, requiring less skill of doctors to perform catheter ablations.

Ultimately we predict a surgical robot will have enough skill and knowledge to handle such tasks autonomously.


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Self-healing Robot

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A four-legged robot called Starfish, developed at Cornell University and the  University of Vermont, is somewhat self-aware and can autonomously change its  gait to compensate for terrain and even for damage to one of its legs. The  director of the Institute of Systems Engineering at the Swiss Federal Institute  of Technology (who was not involved in the project) called it “a major advance  in the field” and one that could be applied to other robot forms.

After observing its own motion using sensors in its joints, Starfish  generates its own concept of what it is – its physical structure and  capabilities – and applies that knowledge to figure out how to walk. When the  researchers shortened one of its legs, the robot knew something was different,  and responded by generating on its own a new concept of its structure and  devising a new way to walk using a different gait to compensate for the injury.  This ability will be very useful in planetary explorer robots that have no  engineers at hand to fix them if something breaks.

MIS – Stereotaxis

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“Stereotaxis Niobe Magnetic Navigation System represents the future in  catheter ablation treatment for arrhythmia,” according to the chief of cardiac  electrophysiology and arrhythmia service at UCSF Medical Center, as reported by  Sam Whiting in the San Francisco Chronicle . “It’s like going from  transistor radio to satellite radio. It may even be a bigger leap than that.  Telegraph to cell phone.”

UCSF helped pioneer the system, which cost US$4.2 million: $1.5 million for  the magnet and navigation system, $1.5 million for the X-ray equipment, and $1.2  million to shield the cath lab in 12 layers of steel. A second (unshielded) cath  lab at UCSF is used to treat straightforward cases; the complicated ones get  Stereotaxis.

A hand-controlled catheter is rigid. Getting it to the right position is  essentially a matter of trial and error, and an error can poke a hole through a  vessel. A Stereotaxis catheter is “a flimsy plastic, limber as a cooked  spaghetti noodle,” as Whiting describes it, with a tiny magnetic tip. The big  magnet outside draws the tip of the catheter into a position set by the surgeon  who is outside the room and working from the 3-D x-ray images on-screen. The  surgeon double-clicks the mouse on a target ablation point and the catheter will  automatically go there, guided by a computer controlling the magnet. The chance  of the catheter going through a vessel wall is close to zero. The surgeon then  simply presses a foot pedal to perform the ablation, and moves on to the next  point.

“The procedure takes less than three hours, an hour or two less than a manual  ablation,” says Whiting. However, the UCSF surgeon told him, “The success rate  by either old or new school is about the same, 85 percent. The difference is in  safety and ease of doing it.”


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