Electronic Design

Will Robots Come To Our Medical Rescue?

Even just a few years ago, robotic doctors seemed decades away. But many physicians now use a remotely controlled robot with a built-in video conference system to provide medical care. The RP-7 from InTouch Health provides a "remote presence" that allows physicians to interact with patients regardless of their physical location (see the figure).

Such developments could revolutionize the way diagnostics are delivered, especially when specialists are required. Even rare diseases could be diagnosed and possibly treated remotely, perhaps using experts to provide instructions to local physicians who may not be able to accurately diagnose and effectively treat the problem on their own.

In September 2001, doctors in the U.S. successfully removed a gall bladder from a patient in eastern France. Known as telesurgery, such procedures use multiple LCDs, an interactive surgical console, and a high-speed fiber-optic link to robotic arms that perform the operation. Telesurgery is expected to become more mainstream over the next couple of decades and be completely automated within 40 to 50 years (see Remote Surgery, Sharon Kay, PBS, www.pbs.org).

Combining telesurgery with the RP-7 would provide access to medical care in areas around the world where such care is limited or expensive. With recent advances in portable medical imaging devices, physicians could make their diagnoses just by looking at these images over a high-speed Internet connection (see "Architecting New Dimensions Of Medical Imaging," June 21, 2007, p. 47, or go to www.electronicdesign.com, ED Online 15795).

The RP-7 has two fundamental pieces: a control station and a robot. The remote physician controls the robot with a joystick attached to a laptop. The physician and patient can see each other in real time thanks to video cameras with 5X optical zoom and 24-bit color 320- by 240-pixel resolution at 30 frames per second.

The physician has a headset, and the robot is equipped with speakers. The robot also comes with a digital stethoscope for remote patient vitals, a privacy handset for doctor/nurse interaction, and a printer.

Thanks to the RP-7 system's "many-to-many" system architecture, any control station may connect to any robot. This lets physicians who work out of an office, hospital, or home connect to any robot in any intensive care unit, emergency department, or patient ward. The RP-7 robot sells for $150,000.

Meanwhile, doctors are investigating the use of nanotechnology to fight diseases. Researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology believe it may be possible to inject nano-scale robot "soldiers" into the bloodstream to seek out and destroy diseases.

These researchers have created a nano-scale robot that is six times smaller than an amoeba and weighs no more than a few hundred nanograms. While their medical use is decades away, such devices could eliminate the need for harmful drugs.

InTouch Health
Swiss Federal Institute of Technology

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