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ROBOTIC RESOURCES

Robot Arm Lends a Hand for Remote Breast Exams

Stäubli Robotics

Women living in remote areas who don’t have easy access to healthcare may someday be able to have a breast exam with robotic technology. Researchers at Michigan State University (East Lansing, MI) have devised a robot examiner that could be used for remote diagnosis or therapy. The robot arm combines ultrasound technology and video documentation with an artificial sense of touch.

To use, the operator wears a haptic glove, each finger of which connects to a motion-sensing device. The operator’s hand movements are measured and sent by computer to the robotic arm, which then mimics each of those moves. The robotic arm also measures the consistency of objects it touches. These tactile data are fed back to the operator.
“The arm, which actually looks like a hand, is equipped with sensors,” explains Carol Slomski, MD, chair of Michigan State’s department of surgery. Slomski, who also serves as codirector of the project, says that, “As the hand touches the patient, the sensation from this touch comes back into my hand [that’s wearing the glove]. When the robot fingers feel a lump or some other abnormality, I also feel it.”

In addition to the tactile assay, an ultrasound gives the physician another tool for diagnosis. “Having the capability of ultrasound and palpitation simultaneously is a major advantage,” says Ranjan Mukherjee, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Michigan State. Mukherjee leads the team building the device.

There are still some issues to work out. For one, researchers are trying to solve the time delay. The reaction time between operator and robot is almost instantaneous, but Mukherjee believes it can be further improved. “The time delay for signal transmission can cause potential problems in operation of the device, but we are developing control strategies to deal with the problem adequately,” he says.

Another concern for the project is patient safety. Again, Mukherjee is confident the team has taken appropriate steps. “We have built safeguards into the robot to prevent it from pushing too hard or doing anything to harm the patient.”

The next goal for the team is to conduct clinical trials. Mukherjee predicts that in five years the device will be ready for commercial use. Slomski says that there may soon be a shortage of surgeons in remote locations. Patients in those areas, such as small towns, may benefit from the device because they will be able to get help from bigger hospitals or clinics.

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