Researchers at UC, Santa Cruz, helped develop the Raven IV surgical robotic system and now use it to study how robots and surgeons can better work together. Image: University of California, Santa Cruz
Though robots can do certain tasks better than humans they’re not particularly good at collaborating with us. The Bionics Lab at University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) finds ways to help humans and robots work together more easily. For instance, the lab aims to expand robotic surgery. Different modes of surgeon-robot collaboration are under investigation at the lab. These include two robotic devices controlled by two surgeons, or one system controlled by a surgeon and another functioning autonomously, said Jacob Rosen, the lab’s principal investigator and director.
Surgery historically has been a collaborative effort involving two or more surgeons and assistants working together. According to Rosen, that model still works well.
“With robotic surgery, however, this collaborative model has been interrupted, because the surgical robot is a single entity controlled by a single surgeon,” Rosen said. “This project is all about regaining the collaboration that surgeons used to do, given the presence of surgical robots in the operating room.”
The goal of the Bionics Lab at UCSC is to find ways to help humans and robots work together more easily. Image: University of California, Santa Cruz
For instance, the Raven IV surgical robotics system developed at the lab includes four robotic arms and two cameras. It helps collaboration efforts between two surgeons in two different locations who interact with and command the robot performing surgery. Commands are given via the Internet and special software.
Another system under development, the Automatic Surgical Tool Changer, is a robotic system that can house and dispense 14 different tools for a surgical robot. It maintains the inventory of tools via radio frequency identification tags.
The tool changer could help with certain surgical tasks that require repetitive motions, such as suturing, dissection, or retraction. Such motions could be fully or partly automated by these types of systems in the future, Rosen said. Automating these repetitive tasks can give surgeons more time to make decisions.
“People are very good at decision-making, but they get tired easily by doing repetitive tasks. So one goal is to move people back to a decision-making role instead of doing the tedious processes that can potentially be automated,” said Rosen, who is a professor of computer engineering in the Baskin School of Engineering at the university.
Researchers chose to focus on robotic surgery because it’s a demanding task, due to the motor control and the decisions required, both of which can be difficult for a single individual to do in tandem, Rosen said.
A robotic surgery system and other human-robot collaborative systems studied at the lab could have a wide range of industrial applications as well, he said.
“Algorithms developed for surgery can be generalized for applications in industry,” Rosen said. “In fact, industry applications might be easier targets because surgery is such a complex task.”
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People are very good at decision-making, but they get tired easily by doing repetitive tasks.
Jacob Rosen, UCSC Bionics Lab
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