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This tiny robot could help surgeons perform ultra-delicate procedures

Origami Miniature Surgical Manipulator

It goes without saying that surgeons need steady hands. But how steady those hands need to be depends a lot on the kind of procedure the surgeons are carrying out at the time. An amputation might require less fine-grain, subtle precision than, say, a mastectomy. And a mastectomy might require less agonizing defusing-a-nuclear-bomb dexterity than minimally invasive laparoscopic surgery, in which tiny tools and an impossibly minuscule camera are inserted into a small incision to carry out an operation.

Simply put: At some point, human hands lack the delicate movement necessary to carry out the procedure in question. Fortunately, there’s a surgical robot that could help.

Developed as a collaboration between the Wyss Institute at Harvard University and a Sony robotics engineer, a new origami-inspired miniature robot manipulator promises to help improve the precision and control needed for teleoperated surgery. The robot manipulator in question — mini-RCM — can be controlled by a human operator and is capable of translating their hand movements into much tinier movements for carrying out tasks like laparoscopic surgery. According to its creators, the robot platform is around the size of a tennis ball and weighs the same as a penny.

Origami surgical robot
Wyss Institute at Harvard University

“The microsurgery robot market is a growing market, estimated [to reach] $1.7 billion in 2024,” Hiroyuki Suzuki of Sony told Digital Trends. “The robotic devices in this field require high precision and compactness and [must be] lightweight because of [their usage in a] operating room. [With our work], we have suggested the way to achieve the super compact and lightweight manipulator for the teleoperated microsurgery.”

While the robot has yet to carry out actual surgery, its creators have tested it out following the movement of a human operator’s hand as they control a pen-like tool. One of the tests involved copying the human as they draw a square shape — but drawing one so scaled-down in size that it is actually smaller than the tip of a ballpoint pen. Compared to a human attempting this, the robot version reduced errors by 68 percent. In a less trivial surgical task, this could be crucial when it comes to helping repair tiny, delicate structures in the body.

“We are not in the commercial phase, but now on the research and development phase,” Suzuki said. “[So far] we have validated the potential of the mini-RCM for the teleoperated microsurgery.”

A paper describing the work was recently published in the journal Nature Machine Intelligence, where it was featured on the cover.

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