DaVinci Surgical system

Hands-on robots: From surgery to bomb disassembly

Robots used primarily for passive monitoring and measuring are not “smart,” according to Joey Hartman, director of the Federal Highway Administration’s Office of Bridges and Structures. That is, they don’t interrogate data or make decisions based on the data they gather.

Nevertheless, a new breed of robots is emerging that can reach out and manipulate its environment in routines so precise and synchronized that a form of electronic intelligence seems to be at work. Such robots, which have been used for years to assemble automobiles, have only recently been showing up in the public sector. The two tasks for which they have been deployed to a significant extent are surgery and handling hazardous materials.   

The da Vinci Surgical System, a large device with three or four interactive robotic arms controlled by a physician seated at a nearby console, received FDA approval in 2000. The da Vinci offers 3D high-definition video, giving a human surgeon magnifications of up to a factor of 10.  In addition, the robotic arms are capable of greater range and precision than human hands.

The da Vinci system is currently used for more than a dozen procedures, including those to treat bladder cancer, colon cancer, coronary artery disease, as well as prostate and throat cancers.  More than 2,000 units have been sold, including several that have been in regular use at Veterans Administration facilities.

At the VA hospital in Charleston, S.C., the DaVinci system is used to perform minimally invasive surgery for complex procedures. “The robot has demonstrated decreased blood loss, shorter hospital stays, less post-operative pain and quicker recovery compared with open surgery,” said Dr. Sandip Prasad.  The DaVinci uses small incisions to introduce miniaturized wristed instruments and a high-definition 3D camera.  Seated comfortably at the DaVinci console, surgeons view a magnified, high-resolution 3D image of the surgical site.

“The da Vinci spun out of our lab back in the 1990s,” noted Richard Mahoney, director of SRI International’s robotics program. Adding that the original funding came from DARPA, Mahoney said the research agency was interested in creating remote capabilities for surgeons who would log on to the robot and perform surgical procedures on the soldiers on the front line.

Emergency response

The Defense and Homeland Security departments have been using robots for years for a different form of remote surgery: bomb defusing and disposal. And dropping costs and enhanced capabilities of robotic technologies are spurring new devices with more decidedly domestic benefits.

In 2012, for example, the Department of Homeland Security introduced the SAPBER, or Semi-Autonomous Pipe Bomb End-cap Remover.  After a bomb-disposal unit, human or robotic, has retrieved a pipe bomb, SAPBER takes over to dismantle it and preserve forensic evidence.

SAPBER carries four video cameras, radio communications, a telescoping mast, cutting wheels, a twisting wrist and is powered by two 12-volt batteries.  The robot is designed to carefully disassemble the pipe bomb and preserve both the explosive materials and the pipe itself as evidence.

According to DHS, SAPBER, which was designed and manufactured by RE2 Inc., was built from commercially available parts that are relatively inexpensive and easily replaced.  The device currently has a price tag of about $12,000.

According to Tom Phelps, director of robotics products at iRobot, public safety agencies are not only increasingly calling for robots, they’re specifically calling for smaller, more portable units. 

“Part of what is driving that is they need better rapid response,” Phelps explained.  “They want to have robots that fit into smaller vehicles, whether it's SUVs or police cars, so they can rapidly respond to suspicious devices instead of having a big command vehicle or trailer.”

That’s why iRobot added the 110 FirstLook to its already relatively broad array of relatively small robots.

Weighing in at only 5.4 pounds and measuring 4” by 10” by 9”, the 110 FirstLook is designed to be literally thrown into potential hazardous situations to scout the environment and send back video to its operator's control device from its four cameras.  The FirstLook can move at up to 3.4 miles per hour, has a range of 656 feet and can automatically right itself if it tumbles in rough terrain.

And if manipulative capabilities are needed, responders can send in one of iRobot’s other robots, such as the 710 Warrior.  At 18" tall, 35" long and 30" wide (with removable self-righting flippers installed), the Warrior is significantly larger than the FirstLook, but it can also use its robotic arm for bomb disposal or to clear routes of objects. 

And the Warrior's ability to climb stairs also suits it for tasks inside buildings.  Duke Energy, for example, is using the Warrior at several of its nuclear stations in North Carolina to handle radioactive material, such as filters used to clean water in the reactor vessel.

"Before the use of the iRobot 710, personnel handled these filters manually by using a six-foot pole to remove and maneuver filters from a radioactive storage container and lowering them into another container used for the long-term storage of radioactive filters," said Valerie Patterson, spokeswoman for Duke's McGuire Nuclear Station. 

"This manual process was challenging due to limitations in the ability to handle the filters and its movement with exact precision,” she said. The manual process also resulted in workers’ exposure to radiation. While the radiological dose is expected, Duke strives to identify ways limit that exposure, Patterson said.

About the Author

Patrick Marshall is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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