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ATI Force/Torque Sensors Help Surgeons Stay In Touch
Traditionally, surgeons depend on a combination of experience, muscle memory, and their sense of touch to instinctively determine the correct tools and techniques to execute each procedure. As they perform more and more surgeries, these instincts become finely tuned. By the time a surgeon moves to the operating table and picks up a tool, they have already determined the correct incision location and contact forces needed to complete the task.

A surgeon’s ability to use their knowledge and intuition to carry out procedures makes them highly efficient and sought-after experts in their respective fields. By using their experiences along with their senses, surgeons literally operate by feel and can make adjustments in real-time along the way. Teaching a robot to perform a task as complex as surgery on a human is challenging as this type of automation equipment features very limited functionality. A robot on its own has no memories or senses and offers little in the way of dynamic control or active assistance. With technology like ATI’s Force/Torque Sensors, robots have the ability to feel their environment and can perform more value-added tasks.

Vanderbilt University is home to the Advanced Robotics and Mechanism Applications (ARMA) Lab directed by Professor Nabil Simaan. The lab is part of the University’s Mechanical Engineering School and focuses on advanced robotic research for medical applications. ARMA research seeks to deploy robotic surgeries in ways that decrease patient discomfort and recovery time. One way they do this is by bridging the connection between remote surgeons and surgical robots in minimally-invasive procedures. They hope to enable a higher level of patient care by reducing variability in robotic surgery.

Today’s surgical robot relies heavily on human input: even though a robot is moving the tools and physically touching the patient, they still require “programming” to know which tool to use, where to place it, when to cut, how much force to use, etc. The surgeon manages all of these variables remotely, in addition to executing the procedure itself, which makes robotic surgery tedious.

ARMA researchers strive to make robots a more active participant to help bridge the disconnection for surgeons. Reverse-engineering a surgeon’s sense of touch has been quite a challenge for them. Surgeons work by feel, which means that exact amounts of contact forces required to execute procedures are unknown. Dr. Simaan and his team developed an interactive model that enables contact forces to be measured and controlled through feedback from ATI Industrial Automation’s Force/Torque (F/T) Sensors.

The model they devised interprets contact force information gathered from simulated robotic surgery. The application includes a DaVinci Research Kit robotic arm, and an ATI F/T Sensor mounted to a “patient” made of silicon. As the surgeon executes the procedure, the forces and torques exerted by the robot on the silicon mockup are captured in real-time, providing insight into what a human patient experiences.

In reality, we cannot place a force sensor inside the human body to gather this data. However, the ARMA application does provide a missing link between the remote surgeon and the patient-side of the procedure. Through the development of a forecast model, surgeons can understand the impact of the process on the body. ATI’s F/T Sensors capture data from all six degrees of freedom simultaneously, which enables highly accurate, precise location data to render realistic models. The information is updated live throughout the simulated procedure while the model adapts to reflect the changes in force and torque. The result is an in-depth profile of how the forces and torques of the surgery impact the patient that helps quantify contact forces that were previously only known by feel.

Understanding exactly how the robot interacts with the human anatomy concerning forces and torques enables more sophisticated functionality of surgical robots. For example, ATI’s F/T Sensor could be integrated on the robot side of the application to monitor and control contact forces during robotic surgery. With haptic feedback, the sensor acts as a virtual fixture for the surgeon’s hands. It would help streamline a surgeon’s focus and prevent excessive forces from being applied to the patient. ARMA allows surgical robots to take on a more active role in the process by leveraging robotic and force-sensing technologies. Contact force data from ATI’s F/T Sensors combined with the robots’ capacity to perform demanding, high-precision tasks with repeatability, help surgeon's stay in touch during robotic surgeries.

This research simplifies robot-assisted procedures by helping surgeons and healthcare providers understand how to standardize minimally-invasive surgeries. Identifying best practices in these surgeries will improve patient care and accessibility to operations, as well as minimize recovery time. With ATI’s F/T Sensors, ARMA research enables robots to actively assist robotic surgeries by connecting the surgeons to the patient’s experience.

For more information about the Advanced Robotics and Mechanism Applications (ARMA) Lab, click here.

For more information about ATI's Force/Torque Sensors, click here.

Image courtesy of Vanderbilt's ARMA Lab.

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