Minimally invasive surgery (MIS) requires multiple small incisions so doctors can insert instruments like lights, probes, and most importantly the camera into the patient’s abdominal wall. It’s a tricky practice, as laparoscopic cameras have limited imaging capabilities and require cumbersome cables. Fortunately, researchers at the U.C. San Diego Division of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2) are nearing completion of the first prototype of the SurgiCam.
This wireless device, which can be inserted into a 1.5-cm incision, offers high-resolution imaging, auto-focus, optical zoom, sophisticated image processing, wireless transmission, and other features (see the figure). The next generation will provide steroscopic 3D vision similar to what’s currently used in robotic surgery.
“The most important feature of this camera is its optical zooming capability, as opposed to digital zooming, as some digital cameras have,” said Boz Kamyabi, a Calit2 senior development engineer. “This feature allows the camera to be out of the way of the surgeons, but they will still have a close-up view of where they want to operate.”
The camera relies on three key breakthroughs. First, it uses bio-inspired fluidic lenses invented by Jacobs School electrical engineering professor Yu-Hwa Lo. Second, it employs real-time video processing algorithms developed by Jacobs School electrical engineering professor Truong Nguyen and colleagues. Finally, it utilizes a novel control mechanism developed by Calit2 engineers. Previous microfluidic lenses required macro-hydraulic control systems for focus and zoom.
“In fact, you needed a high-voltage large-area electro-hydrodynamic control system that was more suitable for my father’s fire-pump motor controls,” said Don Kimball, a principal development engineer. “You need to control the little lens with an equally tiny mechanism.” To solve this problem, Calit2 researchers Doug Palmer and Daniel Johnson developed a way to control the lenses that could be scaled down to something comparable to the lenses themselves.
The project began in late 2005 when Mark Talamini, chair and professor of the U.C.S.D. School of Medicine’s Department of Surgery, approached Calit2 division director Ramesh Rao about the problems with current camera systems. Rao then asked Laura Wolszon, Calit2’s manager for strategic partnerships, to assemble the technical team and guide the project’s development.
Researchers say the SurgiCam also will enable natural orifice transendolumenal endoscopic surgery (NOTES), which eliminates the need for abdominal incisions by using natural openings in the body to access the abdominal cavity. It uses a flexible, tube-like port to allow a camera, light source, and surgical instruments to enter the body, minimizing trauma to the body wall.
But when instruments in the tube move, the camera is moved as well. That means images can be appear distorted, unstable, or even with the wrong orientation. These cameras also previously lacked optical zoom and auto-focus capabilities, and they required a heavy cable. The SurgiCam will eliminate these issues.
The SurgiCam project has been funded by Calit2 with additional seed funding from the university’s von Liebig Center. The Jacobs School of Engineering faculty and students contributed their own time. The U.C.S.D. Chancellor’s Interdisciplinary Collaboratory program added a two-year grant for partial student support. And, a $200,000 grant from the U.S. Army’s Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center helped take the prototype to the next stage.
“The SurgiCam project is a great example of cooperation between researchers from different fields,” said Rao. “The issues could not be solved without the expertise of everyone involved. I have high hopes for a productive outcome.”
California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology
University of California San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering