By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
A doctor in California gave his patient days to live via robot-mounted video chat, the Chicago Tribune reported. The unorthodox and controversial method of delivering the news has sparked the ire of the patient’s family. Do impersonal practices like this outweigh the benefits of medical robots?
The 78-year-old patient, Ernest Quintana, was taken to Kaiser Permanente in Fremont, California, by ambulance, unable to breathe, according to the Chicago Tribune article. Suffering from chronic lung disease, his outlook was clearly grim. A nurse entered his room and said the doctor would be making his rounds shortly. The family was shocked when a robot on wheels rolled into the room instead, a video monitor mounted to it, and stopped at Quintana’s bedside. The doctor appeared on the screen and gave Quintana the bad news—that he had just days to live. However, medical professionals insist that hospital robots are worth the occasional hindrances.
Pioneering Medical Robotics with HelpMateTM
“In January of 1991, a HelpMate robotic courier was installed in the Danbury Hospital in Danbury, Connecticut, by Transitions Research Corporation,” said Dr. John Long, Professor of Biology and a Professor of Cognitive Science on the John Guy Vassar Chair of Natural History at Vassar College. “HelpMate was the first medical courier robot, designed to transport items and information.” One of the first—and least surprising—problems Transitions Research Corporation faced was teaching HelpMate to navigate the hustle and bustle of a busy hospital. Object avoidance and collision detection were the top priority.
HelpMate was first outfitted with a map-based control system and an apparatus that would send radio signals to hospital doors to open themselves. Technicians added receivers and mechanisms to the doors and elevators in the hospital to respond to the robot’s commands. “In addition, HelpMate pioneered the use of three types of sensors to safely interact with things: sonar, video, and bump sensors,” Dr. Long said. Dr. Long explained that a complex system of 28 sonar sensors helped the robot use echolocation while strobe lights and limited-range video cameras helped give it sight. Ultimately, the now-standard bump sensor mechanism consisted of simple switches that would determine HelpMate’s contact with the outside world.
Robotic Surgery – Performing Surgery with da Vinci
What about robots performing surgery on humans? Intuitive Surgical has created a variation on the classic robot arm which they call da Vinci. This robot features four arms that remain outside the patient. However, “Each one of these arms has extensions with sensors and actuators that go inside the body,” Dr. Long said.
da Vinci operates with two human surgeons tending to the patient. One surgeon sits at the patient’s bedside and tends to him or her directly. The other surgeon sits at da Vinci’s control console. “Looking into the console, the surgeon sees inside the patient,” Dr. Long said. “Tiny surgical tools—the end effectors on those manipulators—work together to sew stitches, close an incision, and make cuts.” Scaling the surgeon’s movements down, as opposed to using 1:1 motion representation, allows precision manipulation of the surgical instruments through the robot without harming the patient.
Medical robots have already proven beneficial to hospitals. As robotics engineers and technicians continue to work with surgeons and hospital administrators, robots will likely be implemented further into the medical industry. This increased use of medical robots will leave the public to determine whether situations like those of the Quintana family are worth the aid that hospital robots can provide.
Dr. John Long contributed to this report. Dr. Long is a Professor of Biology and a Professor of Cognitive Science on the John Guy Vassar Chair of Natural History at Vassar College. He also serves as the Director of Vassar’s Interdisciplinary Robotics Research Laboratory, which he helped found in 2003. Professor Long received his Ph.D. in Zoology from Duke University.