For all of its advanced wizardry, Intuitive Surgical's
Now, thanks to researchers at Johns Hopkins, this shortcoming might soon be transcended, thanks to something known as haptic technology. According to an article in yesterday's Technology Review, researchers at John Hopkins are now experimenting with placing physical sensors in Intuitive Surgical's da Vinci patient robots to help surgeons determine how much force is being applied during surgery. This feedback is then relayed to the master robot, where the surgeon feels this force as torque on the joystick controller.
The da Vinci system currently must employ two robots in every surgery. One, called the patient robot, actually performs the surgery; the other, known as the master robot, is operated by the surgeon, who is able to direct the actions of the patient robot by using a joystick. The surgeon's actions are currently based solely on the visual feedback that he or she receives from the patient robot.
The system works as well as it does because skilled surgeons are able to estimate the amount of force that the patient robot is applying by accessing 3-D models that show them what is happening inside the body. Yet seeing, for example, how a tissue stretches isn't quite the same as feeling that tissue stretch. With the new haptic technology, the surgeon will be able to adjust the actions of the patient robot accordingly. This unique characteristic, which is known as transparency, makes the surgeon feel as though the robot isn't even involved in the process.
In addition to allowing surgeons to feel tissue tension better, it is also expected that haptic technology will enable them to manipulate sutures better. It is further hoped that the technology will allow students to practice their craft in a more realistic training environment. In the longer term, it might even allow doctors to perform surgery from remote locations. Currently, both the patient robot and the master robot are always located in the same operating room.
In turn, all of these advantages should help Intuitive Surgical's system become a choice of more surgeons for more complex surgeries, with better results. And when combined with the latest advances in computer software, which I discussed last week, it is clear to me that Intuitive Surgical's future is becoming increasingly transparent -- and positive.
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Fool contributor Jack Uldrich is all about transparency, and that's why he wants you to know that he owns shares of Intuitive Surgical. The Motley Fool's disclosure policy would make him tell you anyway.