A drill-wielding robot that bores into your skull for a quick spot of impromptu brain surgery sounds like a scene from a future sci-fi dystopia, in which AI treats Earth’s surviving humans like lab rats.
In fact, it’s a new research project from the good folks at the University of Utah, who have developed a computer-driven automated drill for cranial surgery. That means safely cutting an opening — called a bone flap — in the skull so that the brain can be accessed underneath. While it would take an experienced surgeon 2 hours to carry out this task using hand-drilling, the University of Utah’s robot is able to achieve the same thing in just 2.5 minutes. That’s 50x faster than was previously possible — which for some reason makes us all kinds of nervous!
While that may be the case, though, there are actually excellent reasons for doing this kind of surgery very rapidly. In other words, it’s not the brain surgery equivalent of Bishop the android’s ultra-fast knife trick from Aliens, that’s just there to show how good robots have gotten.
Carrying out cranial surgery quickly means less time for a wound to be open and a patient to be anesthetized, thereby offering a reduced risk of infection.
Using the technology, a patient is first imaged using a CT scan, allowing for the gathering of bone data and information about sensitive structures like nerves and major veins. The surgeons then program the drill’s optimal route using 3D modeling tech, which Alagar Krishnan Balaji, Associate Professor in Mechanical Engineering, describes as being a bit “like Google Maps” — only on a much, much smaller scale. Due to the fine-grain precision of the robot, it’s possible for it to drill down within 1mm of sensitive structures.
“The specific advantage is that machines, when designed correctly, do not get tired or fatigued and are capable of performing repetitive tasks consistently and well,” Balaji told Digital Trends. “However, you do need to inform the machine what it is supposed to do very explicitly. The surgeon is still involved with the surgery, but for a tedious job like bone removal, the machine takes over and does the preliminary tasks quickly — thus allowing the surgeon to focus on other later aspects of the surgery with greater efficiency and reduced fatigue.”
According to Balaji, there were several engineering challenges involved with the project, such as the ability to link the 3D imaging technology seamlessly with the surgical drill, as well as making a robot portable enough that it could be maneuvered around operating theaters.
“As a mechanical engineer who specializes in machining of materials such as metals, the different material and incredibly complex geometry encountered in neurosurgery was [also] particularly challenging,” he continued.
At present, the robot is just a proof-of-concept that’s yet to make it into hospitals. But with its impressive tech demo, researchers at the University of Utah hope that it will be only a matter of time before it becomes a regularly-used tool in the surgeon’s arsenal.
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