Hospitals open the door to sci-fi's medical robots

Exhibition reveals huge advances that are turning futuristic fantasies into surgical reality

From the tiny submarine injected into the human body in the film Fantastic Voyage in 1966, to the hologram Doctor in Star Trek: Voyager in 1995, medical robots have long fuelled the imaginations of science fiction writers.

Now many of those fantasies are coming true and on Tuesday the Royal College of Surgeons will exhibit some of the advances that in just five years could see tiny robots going to work inside patients.

Sci-Fi Surgery: Medical Robots will also show technology that is in use, such as the Probot, a robot designed to aid prostate gland surgery, and Freehand, a robotic camera holder for keyhole surgery.

It is the prototypes, however, that are likely to catch the imagination. Injecting a tiny submarine into the human body so it can fix a blood clot on the brain made a great story in 1966, but the authors of Fantastic Voyage were not far wrong in their vision of the future.

Among the machines on display at the exhibition are tiny robot cameras just 15mm long that can be swallowed and then guided by doctors using remote control and a TV screen for a guide. Another intriguing prototype is the Italian-designed Ares Robot, which would require patients to swallow up to 15 robotic modules. Once inside the body the modules assemble themselves into a larger device capable of carrying out surgical procedures.

"I think the most exciting thing in the future is how do we move from surgery to 'incisionless' surgery, in other words doing procedures without any incisions," said Lord Darzi, the co-director of the Hamlyn Centre for Robotic Surgery at Imperial College London.

Lord Darzi predicts that robot capsule pills could be widely used in hospitals within the next three to five years. He says robotics "will completely change everything we do".

On a larger scale, a "Da Vinci" robotic system is already being used in a number of British hospitals to operate on patients. The machine, which is a monitor linked up to several robotic arms that can be controlled by the surgeon, is more precise than either open surgery or standard keyhole procedures.

Surgery is not the only area where robots are making an impact. Two weeks ago researchers in Japan unveiled a nursing robot built in the shape of a giant teddy bear. Called Riba – Robot for Interactive Body Assistance – it is designed to help doctors and nurses by lifting patients in and out of their beds.

The exhibition will also pay homage to the science fiction that helped inspire real life robots, such as the 1920s Psychophonic Nurse, Japanese manga (printed cartoons) and anime (animated films), plus the comic book anthology 2000AD, which depicted future robot wars.

"Many mini and micro robots have biologically inspired designs that emulate the crawling and wriggling motion of worms and insects, or the swimming motion of bacteria," said Dr Arianna Menciassi, Associate Professor of Biomedical Robotics at Scuola Superiore Sant'Anna in Pisa, Italy, which developed Ares.

"We turned to biological inspiration because worms have locomotion systems suited to unstructured, slippery environments and are ideally suited for use in the human body."

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