Navigating the future of surgery

Surgery is about to change with the introduction of a new robotic system that can liberate surgeons from the constraints of the human hand.


The world’s first MRI-compatible surgical robot is the creation of neurosurgeon Dr. Garnette Sutherland, who has spent the last six years leading a team of Canadian scientists who worked in  cooperation with MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates (MDA) to develop the machine.


“Many of our microsurgical techniques evolved in the 1960s, and have pushed surgeons to the limits of their precision, accuracy, dexterity and stamina,” says Dr. Sutherland, professor of neurosurgery, University of Calgary Faculty of Medicine and the Calgary Health Region. “NeuroArm dramatically enhances the spatial resolution at which surgeons operate, and shifts surgery from the organ towards the cell level.”


Designed to be controlled by surgeons from a computer workstation, neuroArm operates in conjunction with a real-time MR imaging system, enabling them to manipulate tools on a microscopic scale. Advanced surgical testing of the neuroArm is currently underway, followed by the first patient, anticipated for the summer.


“Building a robot is complex to begin with. Adding the constraints of operating in a sterile operating room, within an MRI machine and alongside the other people involved in surgery makes it a very complex environment,” says the project’s robotics engineer Alex Greer. By acquiring first-hand knowledge of the demands in the operating room, Greer and Paul McBeth, an engineer from the University of Calgary, acted as the bridge between the physicians, scientists and engineers involved in the project.


“Doctors and engineers are good at what they do but they speak different languages,” Greer says. “Translating surgical requirements into technical terms can be a challenge.” When the project began, engineers from MDA travelled to Calgary and worked with surgeons for several weeks to define the requirements necessary for the successful design of neuroArm.