On the medical side, SSIM researchers are focusing on robotic surgery with emphases on helping physicians to steer instruments more precisely and navigate better during the operation, and on adding sensation to the remote instruments so the surgeons can "feel" the instruments as they move through the patient's body or perceive how tightly he or she is tying a suture. These improvements will advance robotic surgeries, which while still in their infancy, are becoming increasingly popular for pediatric and adult patients alike. In this surgical technique, a robot perches atop the patient, while the doctor sits comfortably at a usually nearby station and controls the robotic instruments. A great advantage of the technology is that the instruments are motion-scaled, which means that centimeters of motion at the surgeon's site are translated into millimeters of motion at the patient. This permits great precision, and also filters out even minimal tremors in the surgeon's steady hand. With such pin-point accuracy, operations are becoming considerably less invasive, and in many cases, decreasing hospital stays from days to hours.
At the SSIM, a physics and engineering research team is examining the surgeon-to-robot interface and creating ways to boost the surgeon's performance by devising a model that will predict the motion scaling based on the optical camera zoom. These innovations will combine to make more fluid the surgeon's and instrument's movements. The engineering challenges are great, because the sensor must be small enough to embed in a delicate surgical instrument, yet be able to communicate the detailed information it gathers to the surgeon. The researchers are designing and making dual-mode acoustic-wave sensors for the instruments that will feed back information to a cybernetic glove on the hand of a surgeon. Besides feeling the pressures exerted on the instrument, the surgeon will be able to push on corresponding sensors in the glove to transmit the amount of force the instrument should use.
SSIM engineers watched surgeons in action to learn about some of the difficulties they faced when performing remote operations. One of the most vexing was a problem of navigation. Akin to looking at a map through a pinhole, the surgeon sees the patient through a single robotic camera that provides a close-in view but no picture of the surgeon's relative position in the body. The lack of such reference made it difficult for the surgeon to easily determine where he or she was in the body. In response, SSIM researchers are working on advanced visualization with augmented reality, virtual reality and three-dimensional ultrasound to help the surgeon navigate.