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Mobile in vivo camera robots provide visual feedback in surgery

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Anne L. Fischer

Minimally invasive surgery offers patients less trauma, shorter recovery times and less scarring. However, the small incisions used in these techniques, such as laparoscopy, restrict surgeons’ views of the operating environment. The cameras used in these procedures are generally large devices outside the patient’s body, also limiting the views available to the surgeon.

Researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha are working on miniature mobile camera-bearing robots that can be inserted into the body and that can provide vision assistance without being confined to the entry site.

These prototype mini surgical robots are equipped with cameras to give the surgeon an inside view during laparascopic procedures. The larger of the three devices is an earlier prototype. Today’s versions are smaller and have cameras that can pan and tilt.

They developed several types of in vivo camera robots, including fixed-base and wheeled. The fixed-base devices can pan and tilt, but do not move on their own. Instead, they are placed in various locations by the surgeon.

The wheeled robot is 15 mm in diameter and 75 mm long and has two helical wheels that are independently driven by DC motors, allowing it to traverse abdominal organs. Its tail prevents it from spinning but lets it reverse direction.

The scientists tested a wheeled robot without a camera and found that, with a weight of 25 g, it has enough force to climb the rough and hilly terrain of the abdomen. They also tested a wheeled mobile robot with a camera, bringing the weight up to 50 g. The adjustable-focus video camera is 20 mm in diameter and 100 mm in length. It also has a helical wheel and a stabilizing tail. The camera’s tilt mechanism allows it to be tipped 15° without changing the position of the wheels.

A surgical team inserted the mobile adjustable-focus robotic camera (MARC) into an animal’s abdominal cavity through a standard laparoscopic trocar, or tool port. The camera uses tiny image sensors designed for commercial use in cell phones. The investigators found that the acquired images are comparable to those provided by current laparoscopic systems.

The MARC explored regions within the abdominal cavity, and the camera helped the surgeons focus on specific areas. They removed a gallbladder, with the robotic camera providing the only visual feedback. They found that the robot was extremely useful and gave them a better understanding of the surgical environment than they would have had with a standard laparoscope.

The investigators are working to reduce the robot to a size that fits in a traditional 15-mm laparoscopic trocar. Size reduction is a challenge, according to Shane M. Farritor, associate professor of mechanical engineering at the university. Some robots used in testing were tethered, so another important goal is to make the robots wireless and to incorporate additional sensors that may be able to give diagnostic and other feedback. He said that the researchers want to move toward robots that can cut, pull, push — all the things that surgeons do.

Someday there may even be miniature robots designed for specific surgical tasks, and multiple robots may be sent into the body to do a variety of tasks simultaneously.

Surgical Endoscopy, January 2006, pp. 135-138.

Apr 2006
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