SRI’s telerobotic surgical system, M7, expands the reach of surgical intervention by enhancing the precision of minimally invasive procedures and enabling surgeons to operate from afar.
SRI pioneered telepresence surgery during the 1980s under contract to the U.S. Army. The goal: to develop a battlefield-based trauma surgery system that could be operated remotely by a surgeon. In the 1990s, further technology improvements were made with funding from the National Institutes of Health.
SRI began development of the M7 in 1998, under contract to the Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center. The advanced version of SRI’s original telepresence system features several advantages:
- Two anthropomorphic robotic arms cover a large workspace and move through seven degrees of freedom
- Auditory, visual, and tactile sensations, including the force or pressure felt while making an incision, are communicated directly to the surgeon performing the operation
- Tremor is virtually eliminated, and SRI-developed software compensates for jarring or turbulence that may occur on a moving platform, such as a space vehicle or aircraft
- Conventional surgical tools can be swapped rapidly by a technician
- Optics and stereo video processing technology were upgraded
In 2006, SRI successfully demonstrated a remote robotic surgical system as part of the ninth NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) in the Aquarius Underwater Laboratory, located 60 feet underwater off the coast of Key Largo, Florida.
For the mission, SRI’s robot electronics were redesigned to permit long-distance operation over IP networks. NEEMO 9 marked the first time an entire robotic surgical system was transported to an extreme environment and manipulated successfully from afar.
In 2007, SRI researchers and collaborators from the University of Cincinnati evaluated the benefits of robotic surgery during air and space flights. Four flights aboard a NASA C-9 aircraft simulated the microgravity of space and variable gravity of military critical care air transport.
SRI-developed software helped the robot compensate for errors in movement that can occur in moments of turbulence and transition in gravity. Both the human surgeon and the robot performed comparably when tasked with making incisions on a tissue model and suturing a wound or incision.
The medical procedures simulated may one day be used to respond to emergencies on the International Space Station, the moon, or Mars. The technology is also applicable in remote regions on earth where there is limited medical care.