Because robot-assisted minimally invasive surgery (RMIS) can be performed via small incisions, it is less damaging than traditional surgical methods and results in less scar tissue left behind. For patients, this means easier, less painful surgery, and faster recovery times. For surgeons, robotic surgery allows them to achieve a much higher degree of precision and dexterity than even the most skilled of human hands.
There are some challenges with RMIS at present that the industry is working to solve. One of the major issues with RMIS is the lack of quality haptic feedback.
Haptic feedback as a limitation for robot-assisted surgery
Haptic feedback is the physical sensation humans receive through our sense of touch. Haptic technology is a way for machines and other devices to replicate this sensorial feedback. In machines, this refers to the kinesthetic (force) and tactile (touch) feedback of an RMIS system. Traditional surgical procedures do not have an issue with a loss of feedback because surgeons are performing the procedures with their own hands. While robotic surgery has substantial benefits, one significant drawback is that robotic surgery cuts out almost all haptic feedback.
The lack of effective haptic feedback is often reported by surgeons and robotics researchers alike to be a major limitation to current RMIS systems. Many surgeons enter the field because they are highly kinesthetic individuals, and lack of haptic feedback makes it much harder to engage directly with the patient.
Difficulties in developing a haptic feedback system for robot-assisted surgery
A high-quality haptic feedback system will provide tactile and force feedback while retaining the level of precision, dexterity, and maneuverability offered by robotics, ideally providing a type of transparency for surgeons where their experience is similar to traditional surgery. This is a fine balancing act, made more challenging by the general needs to keep robotics systems efficient, low cost, and optimal for patient safety and health.
One principal issue with haptic systems for RMIS is sensing and displaying force input. There are already effective force sensors on the market, but these are difficult to implement into surgery because of inherent restraints on cost, size, geometry, biocompatibility, and sterilization.
For a haptic system to be effective and feasible for surgery, all components of it must be small enough to be implemented in an operating room, able to withstand repeated sterilizations, and not cause any negative biological effects.
While various systems can currently meet some of these requirements, researchers continue to develop systems that can meet all of these needs. One emerging technology that could meet these needs is the haptic glove, which can be used to control robots remotely with a degree of precision approaching that of real human hands.
Though the challenges of RMIS are great, and researchers and technology developers continue to try to solve these problems, the benefits to mankind will be greater. Better haptic systems in surgery will mean safer, easier, and more affordable surgery for all.