Robot surgery on the fly

2 min read

A team of military, telecommunications and surgical experts are using an unmanned aircraft and sophisticated communication tools to take mobile telesurgery closer to reality.

In telesurgery, a surgeon performs operations using a surgical robot and advanced computer technology on a patient located some distance away.

Timothy Broderick MD, assistant professor of surgery at University of Cincinnati (UC) and medical director for its Center for Surgical Innovation (CSI), is leading the first test of a prototype communications platform for mobile telesurgery, the High Altitude Platforms for Mobile Robotic Telesurgery (HAPsMRT).

This two-phase telesurgery experiment will take place between Simi Valley, California, a desolate and arid area surrounded by hills and plains, and Seattle, Washington, between the 5 and 9th of June.

The HAPsMRT model, developed in collaboration with the US Army’s Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center and the University of Washington, uses an unmanned airborne vehicle (UAV), or ‘drone’, as the communications connection point between a surgeon in one part of the country and a patient located hundreds of miles away.

Current telesurgery tools rely on satellite communication and streaming video delivered via high-speed Internet. In remote locations, said Dr Broderick, satellite signals are not always dependable and can result in delays that make surgery difficult.

“Reliable, high-speed communication signals are critical for telesurgery to work in day-to-day patient care,” said Dr Broderick. “Our ultimate goal is to eliminate the communications lag to enable the surgeon to safely operate on a remote patient in real time.”

HAPsMRT utilises low-latency communication transmissions, so the communication signals travel over a shorter distance and with fewer delays.

In phase one of the mission, a simulated patient and robot will be located eight kilometres north of Dr Broderick at the AeroVironment Flying Field. Dr Broderick will sit behind the surgical robot control console and operate on the simulated patient using streaming video fed into the console from the UAV.

In phase two of the experiment, Dr Broderick will travel to the University of Washington and operate on the same simulated patient in Simi Valley from behind a surgical robot control console in Seattle.

Throughout the mission, the research team will evaluate the UAV’s communications capabilities, including speed and quality of video streaming, information time lapses and suturing precision, to see how they are affected by an extreme environment.

“We need to find better ways of delivering emergency and specialised surgical care to patients when they are hundreds of miles away from the nearest hospital,” said Dr Broderick. “When it’s perfected, telesurgery could quickly become the medical norm for remote places, including battlefields, extremely rural towns, even space.”

In March 2005, Dr Broderick and his UC team led the US’s first live telesurgery, using the da Vinci surgical robot, from Ohio to California.