The Smart Tissue Autonomous Robot (STAR) can stitch soft tissue together with a needle and thread better than the best human doctor. Developed by researchers at Children’s National Health System in Washington, D.C., it uses an advanced 3-D imaging system and very precise force sensing to apply stitches with submillimeter precision.
STAR consists of an industrial robot equipped with several custom-made components. The researchers developed a force-sensitive device for suturing and, most important, a near-infrared camera capable of imaging soft tissue in detail when fluorescent markers are injected.
“It’s an important result,” says Ken Goldberg, a professor at UC Berkeley who is also developing robotic surgical systems. “The innovation in 3-D sensing is particularly interesting.”
Goldberg’s team is developed surgical robots that could be more flexible than STAR because instead of being manually programmed, they can learn automatically by observing expert surgeons. “Copying the skill of experts is really the next step here,” he says.
Science fiction fans have been sitting in the waiting room patiently for many years. Star Wars famous 2-1B autonomous medical droid could do surgery (as well as rehab) on our heroes.
(2-1B medical droid from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back)
Science fiction fans of course remember the robot surgeon from Isaac Asimov's 1976 classic The Bicentennial Man:
Andrew Martin studied the robot's right hand, his cutting hand, as it lay motionless on the desk. The fingers were long and were shaped into artistically metallic, looping curves so -graceful and appropriate that one could imagine a scalpel fitting them and becoming, temporarily, one piece with them. There would be no hesitation in his work, no stumbling, no quivering, no mistakes. That confidence came with specialization, of course, a specialization so fiercely desired by humanity that few robots were, any longer, independently brained. A surgeon, of course, would have to be.
(Read more about Asimov's robot surgeon)
Earlier still, Philip K. Dick wrote about a similar idea in his 1955 short story War Veteran; a robot surgeon-hand that could be detached and would work autonomously. In this instance, the robotic hand was doing double-duty as an escape device:
From time to time V-Stephens examined his wristwatch and then turned his attention back to the object crawling up and down the sealed edges of the entrance-lock.
The object moved slowly and cautiously. It had been exploring the lock for twenty-nine hours straight; it had traced down the power leads that kept the heavy plate fused in place... During the last hour it had cut its way throught the rexeroid surface to within an inch of the terminals. The crawling, exploring object was V-Stephen's surgeon-hand, a self-contained robot of precision quality usually joined to his right wrist.
It wasn't joined there now. He had detached it and sent it up the face of the cube to find a way out. The metal fingers clung precariously to the smooth dull surface, as the cutting-thumb laboriously dug its way in...
The forefinger of the surgeon-hand reached the anode terminal and paused questioningly. All four fingers rose erect and waved like insect antennae. One by one they fitted themselves into the cut slot and probed for the nearby cathode lead.
(Read more about Dick's autonomous robot surgeon-hand)