Rise of the Robots

Increasingly, the hand holding the scalpel in operating rooms around the country is more likely to be made of stainless steel and titanium than flesh and blood. By 2020, surgical robotics sales are expected to almost double to $6.4 billion, according to a recent report by Allied Market Research. That would represent a 10.2% annual growth rate between 2014 and 2020.

One of the brightest stars in that burgeoning market is Medrobotics, based in Raynham, Massachusetts. They are the makers of the Flex® Robotic System, which resembles nothing less than a flexible metal “snake” of the sort your plumber might use.

The snake's body is actually a highly articulated multi-linked scope that can be driven and steered along non-linear, circuitous paths in ways that are impossible for traditional, straight scopes. The endoscope maneuverability comes from numerous mechanical links with concentric mechanisms. Each mechanism can be placed into a rigid or a limp state. By employing "follow-the-leader" movement with alternating rigid or limp states, the endoscope can be directed into any shape through the relative orientations of its linkages. This enables surgeons to perform minimally-invasive procedures in places within the body that were previously very difficult, or impossible, to reach. Once positioned, the scope can become rigid, forming a stable surgical platform from which the surgeon can pass flexible surgical instruments. The system includes on-board HD visualization to give surgeons a clear view of the navigation path and surgical site.

The Flex® Robotic System was based upon the work and research ofHowie Choset, who was a professor of Robotics at Carnegie Mellon University at the time. Choset became one of the founders of Medrobotics, and continues to serve as the company's Chief Technology Officer.

According to Choset, the Flex® Robotic System is so simple to use, even a non-surgeon can learn it in 20 minutes. He has hopes that his brainchild could someday allow military medics in the field to perform minimally invasive surgery on wounded soldiers.

In the meantime, the system is the first robot-assisted flexible endoscopic platform of its kind and the first to receive FDA approval with the word "robot" in its name.