Recent developments in robotic technology have created significant changes and future implications for all sorts of industries and walks of life, but there are few where the impact has been as profound as it has proven in the field of medicine. Simply put, the advent of advanced medical robotics is changing lives - and saving them.
Medical robotic technology is still in its relative infancy, but there is no doubt that the introduction of these sophisticated devices is making it possible to treat illnesses and health problems in ways that have never been possible before. As technology continues to evolve, the frontier of what can be achieved by medical science will continue to be pushed back, and patients will benefit in ways that are both small-scale and hugely significant.
Here, we take a look at five of the most amazing recent developments in medical robotics - and examine how each of these technologies could be set to revolutionise standards of hospital care for years to come.
When most people think of medical robotics, robot-assisted surgery is often the first thing that comes to mind. These systems are still new enough that their presence in the operating room may still be regarded with trepidation by many people, but this is likely to change as their benefits and capabilities become more widely known and established.
It’s possible that some people think of surgical robots as being wholly automated systems that operate using AI, but in reality, the majority of modern surgical robots are operated manually by a trained surgeon. One example of this is the popular da Vinci Surgical System, which combines highly precise remote-operated robotic arms with sophisticated camera equipment, allowing the surgeon to control the arms from a computer console.
Systems like da Vinci offer a level of dexterity and fine motor control that cannot be matched - in one memorable demonstration, the da Vinci was used to suture the skin back on to a tiny grape, underlining the degree of precision the robotic device can provide. With these capabilities, it is now possible to perform delicate and complex surgeries in a way that minimises the chances of infection and blood loss, while also delivering quicker recoveries and minimal scarring.
In future, it may be possible for surgical robots to improve further through the power of machine learning. By connecting to the internet, surgical systems can learn from each other and refine their technique through access to a global database, allowing them to provide assistance to human surgeons in complex and unexpected scenarios, and delivering a standard of care that far exceeds what is possible today.
Medical telepresence robots
One of the main concerns about medical robotics is that they could lead to the healthcare process becoming depersonalised - but in fact, many of the technologies that are currently hitting the market are actually designed to build stronger connections between doctors and patients.
Medical telepresence robots are at the forefront of this, giving doctors and nurses a way to stay in face-to-face contact with their patients, even when they are not able to be physically present. These mobile systems allow a tablet to be mounted on top of them as they move around the patient’s room, meaning medical professionals can see and hear what is going on via video conferencing.
The applications of this technology are numerous, with many systems incorporating sophisticated cameras that make it possible to perform physical examinations remotely. This could, for example, make it possible to have a consultation with a particular specialist without needing to travel to their location; it can also allow doctors to check in on patients who find it difficult to leave their own homes, or to provide care to remote destinations that otherwise might have been cut off from accessing proper health consultations.
With healthcare providers always looking for new ways to maximise the efficiency of their care and make their treatment approach as convenient as possible for the patient, it will be no surprise to see medical telepresence robots becoming a regular fixture of hospitals, clinics and even some homes in the near future.
Microbots for delivering targeted treatment
Some of the most game-changing medical robots currently in development are also some of the smallest. Representing one of the newest advances in medical robotics, the field of microbotics is still emerging, but it could be set to deliver a revolutionary impact in the not-too-distant future.
Microbots are tiny devices measuring less than a millimetre in size, and are widely seen as a highly promising new method of delivering targeted therapies to specific parts of the body. One of the main issues faced by doctors today is the fact that many therapies come with significant risks and side effects, due to their impact on healthy tissue. Microbots can solve this by focusing treatment exclusively in the area of the body where it is needed.
The biocompatible units can be harmlessly swallowed and guided magnetically to a particular organ or body region; many have tiny tails or propellor systems to allow them to navigate the insides of the body, or can change shape to pass through narrow spaces and blood vessels. Once they reach their destination, they can deliver targeted radiation to a tumour, or release medication into a single organ.
Although this technology has not yet reached mainstream use, it is easy to understand just how many potential applications microbots could have for treating a wide range of different diseases.
Advanced mind-controlled prosthetics
Prosthetic limbs are nothing new in the field of medicine, but breakthroughs in robotics research are helping to usher in an exciting new generation of enhanced prosthetics that offer capabilities far beyond anything previously seen.
The Biomechatronics lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has already been able to create robotic limbs with built-in gyroscopes that allow them to track their own position in three-dimensional space and adjust their joints more than 750 times per second, as well as bionic skins and brain implant systems that allow the user to control and experience sensation in the prosthetic.
In 2018, a man from Florida was chosen to be the first person ever to live with a robotic arm implant, undergoing surgery to rewire the nerves in his shoulder before connecting them to an advanced prosthetic that can be moved using the exact same brain patterns that would be used to control a natural arm.
Now that these devices are finally making their way out of laboratory settings, it could represent a life-changing advancement for amputees all over the world.
Disinfection robots for hospital cleaning
Certain advances in hospital robotic technology are not focused specifically on medical care, but could deliver lifesaving benefits just the same. One of the best examples of this is the new generation of disinfection robots, which have been identified as a superior way of helping hospitals to meet exacting standards of hygiene and cleanliness.
The spread of germs and infections represents a significant challenge in healthcare settings, which is why thorough sanitisation methods are absolutely essential to providing safe care. Manual cleaning methods are not always infallible, which is why the introduction of ultraviolet-powered disinfection robots could represent an important step forward.
These sterilisation systems work simply by emitting powerful UV rays that will flood the entire room, moving around to reach even the most sheltered corners and ensuring that all of the bacteria in the area can be neutralised in a matter of minutes. These robots can be used in most hospital facilities, as well as in nursing homes, emergency vehicles and even assisted living and extended care facilities.
Given the current focus on medicine on reducing the unnecessary use of antibiotics to prevent the evolution of dangerous superbugs, these highly efficient germicidal devices could represent one of the most important new inventions in healthcare - despite the fact that most patients will rarely, if ever, be in the same room as them.
Although some of these robotic advances may be several years away from coming into day-to-day use, it is clear these technologies are evolving at a rapid pace - and that the benefits they offer have the potential to transform many fields of medicine.
At Northern Connectors, we already offer a wide range of electrical connectivity for medical applications, and it is clear that this is a trend that’s only going to keep accelerating - creating exciting new opportunities for progress for doctors, patients and manufacturers alike.