On September 6, 2005, in Uncategorized
There is no common robotics theme in this issue, but that’s not for want of advances:

  • The nanotechnologists’ dream of a Universal Assembler that can turn itself into any desired object — a patient, for example — is off to a “big” start, with components measuring hundredths rather than billionths of a meter.
  • The line between robots and medical simulators is blurring with the introduction of mannequins as realistic on the inside as on the outside. A recent arrival is a three- to six-month-old infant simulator.
  • Haptic gloves and a robotic arm/hand with built-in ultrasound will enable a physician to examine breasts remotely. Another robotic arm has handed instruments to a surgeonduring an actual procedure on a patient at New York Presbyterian.
  • State-of-the-art pharmaceutical labs share a resemblance with state-of-the-art automobile factories: Robots everywhere. And the robots are having a similar beneficial effect on productivity.
  • Japan’s long-term view of robotics maintains its focus on assisting the elderly and disabled.

3D Patients

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Computer scientists at Carnegie Mellon University are working on a relatively large-scale model of nanotechnogy’s dream of a “universal assembler” (UA) — a collection of tiny robots that can be configured into any desired object such as a doctor, or perhaps then a chair to collapse on when presented with the doctor’s bill. Or with this technology, the doctor could as well assemble the patient in the consulting room.

Where nanotechnologists dream of a UA built out of molecule-sized robots, Drs. Seth Goldstein and Todd Mowry dream a million times bigger — millimeter-sized UAs. Technology is at the point where it is both feasible and wise to start thinking about and planning for this type of device, just as it was feasible and wise in the 1950s to start thinking about putting a man on the Moon, the researchers say.

The National Science Foundation and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency have provided some funding and the project already involves about a half dozen core researchers and about 20 affiliated members within the university and at an Intel research office in Pittsburgh. So far, they have made four 4cm “catoms” (claytronic atoms,as they call their UA components) that interact. Next step is to get them down to the size of marbles and build hundreds of them.

Baby Simulator

Source: Advisory Board Daily Briefing, May 19, citing the Associated Press/New York Times, May 18.

Medical Education Technologies’ US$52,000 BabySIM interactive medical simulator has the physical characteristics of a three- to six-month-old infant. It weighs 21 pounds, is 28 inches long, and has eyes that dilate and blink, an exact replica of the esophagus, heart functions, and the ability to react to medications and treatments — including the ability to “die” if incorrectly treated.

Breast Exam Robot

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Michigan State University researchers have made a robotic hand that uses ultrasound to examine breasts. It would be used by doctors to examine women remotely. The doctor would wear a haptic glove that transmits the coordinates to the robot hand, which then moves in sync with the doctor’s hand. In turn, sensors in the robotic hand measure the consistency of the breast and send that data back to the doctor’s glove, where transducers translate the measurements back to a physical feeling in the doctor’s hand. The robot hand also has three video cameras so the doctor can see the breast, and an ultrasound sensor that enable the doctor to view ultrasound images simultaneously with the palpation.

Clinical trials and about five years will be needed before the device could reach the market.

Robot Scrub Nurse

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A robotic arm called Penelope has begun assisting surgeons at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. Equipped with voice recognition, “she” can respond to verbal commands to hand the surgeon a surgical instrument, and her software enables her to anticipate what instrument the surgeon will most likely ask for next.

Penelope has already successfully assisted in a real operation — the removal of a benign tumor on the forearm of a patient. She not only saves valuable time in the OR and ameliorates the chronic shortage of nurses, but also enables surgical team members to focus more on the patient and procedure.

Robot Chemists

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At Eli Lilly and Co.’s new US$104 million lab building robots will handle the “test-tube toil” involved in drug development, reports the Indianapolis Star. Working around the clock, the robots will perform up to 120 chemical procedures a day, the output of 50 to 60 chemists. For now, the robots will be given only the more routine and safe tasks, and will be closely monitored.

The 285,000-square-foot building increases Lilly’s overall chem lab capacity by a third.

Aichi Expo

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Prototype robots exhibited at the World Expo 2005 in Aichi, Japan, included two autonomous assistants developed by Toshiba for homebound elderly and children. One can respond to its owner’s voice with greetings or reminders; the other can also recognize its owner visually and follow her around. They don’t do windows, however — that chore will be delegated to Miraikikai’s WallWalker. They won’t carry bags, either, but another robot, developed at Meijo University, will.

A humanoid robot from Nagoya University has simulated human organs and is intended for medical training. Nagoya University has also developed a surgical robotic tool called Hyper-Finger that helps a surgeon perform abdominal microsurgery.

Mitsubishi’s Wakammaru and ATR’s Robovie-R perform jokes and slapstick routines. Tohoku University’s Partner Ballroom Dance Robot is an artificial dance partner. Hiroshima University’s Batting Robot helps baseball pitchers practice their throws. The M-Tran III from Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (NIST) can walk on four limbs like an ape or shift shape and slither like a snake. Ritsumeikan University’s Koharo is a spherical robot that moves by contracting its sides.

A showstopper was Repliee, a lifelike humanoid female that gestures, blinks, speaks, and even seems to breathe. She does not walk, but 31 points of articulation in her upper body (powered by compressed air), lifelike skin, and subtle “unconscious” movements give the robot what National Geographic calls an “eerie verisimilitude: the slight flutter of the eyelids, the subtle rising and falling of the chest, the constant, nearly imperceptible shifting so familiar to humans.”

According to an a report in the Asahi Shimbun, Toyota aims to start selling robots that can help look after elderly people or serve tea to guests by 2010. But Reuters says the company has made “no decision yet on whether it would commercialise the humanoid robots it is developing,” and a managing officer overseeing Toyota’s robot division said the company might have one in use merely as a receptionist at a car plant by 2010. According to Reuters, Honda is equally noncommittal about predicting the commercial viability of its own humanoids.


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