Medical robotics: autonomous navigation inside the body

Medical robots

In a first, Bioengineers at Boston Children’s Hospital unveiled a robot which can navigate autonomously inside the body. The team of scientists programmed a robotic catheter in an animal model of cardiac valve repair. The catheter autonomously made progress inside the body from along the walls of a beating, blood-filled heart to a leaky valve. A detailed report of the scientific experiment is published in Science Robotics.

In the previous experiments, scientists have operated robots by using joysticks and by steering tiny robots through the human body by external magnetism forces. However, the latest development by the research team at Boston Hospital is the first of its kind. The experiment of autonomous robots envisions to assist surgeons in the future with operations and also aims to alleviate their stress and fatigue levels.

Cutting-edge Artifical Intelligence led the project up and running. An optical touch sensor navigated the team’s robotic catheter. The sensor is operated via AI and image processing algorithms. This enables the catheter to figure out where it needs to go. For the mock demo, scientists worked a high tech procedure known as paravalvular aortic leak closure. This procedure repaired heart valves which leaked around the edges. A cardiac surgeon took to the procedure, only after the robotic catheter had reached the leak location. He then inserted a plug to close the leak. The estimated time required for the robotic catheter to navigate to the heart valve is equivalent to that taken by a surgeon operating either manually or via a joystick-robot.

It was also AI that clued the sensor on its environment. Whether it was touching blood, the heart wall or the valve;  such visual images were conveyed to the catheter via the data from preoperative imaging and algorithms. This biologically inspired navigation is one of the major breakthroughs of the experiment.