When robots perform operations on humans

Professor Mathis-Ulrich, standing in front of a table.
Prof. Dr. sc. (ETH Zürich) Franziska Mathis-Ullrich, W3-Professur für Medizinrobotik an der FAU; Bild:FAU/Georg Pöhlein

FAU research project about robotic assistance systems receives approximately 2 million euros in funding.

A robot performing surgery on humans. What sounds like science fiction could provide support to physicians in the operating room in future. In the “ForNeRo – Seamless and Ergonomic Integration of Robotics into the Clinical Workflow” research network, researchers from FAU and five other research institutions and five companies are developing methods for integrating robotic assistance systems for surgical applications using intuitive interfaces in the operating room. The project is set to receive around 2 million euros of funding from the Bavarian Research Foundation because of its innovative approach.

“Developing specific applications for companies and society from innovative approaches in research is exactly in line with the High-Tech Agenda Bavaria of the Bavarian government,” explained Hubert Aiwanger, Bavarian Minister of Economic Affairs when the funding was announced. “Research networks are the creme de la creme of the Bavarian Research Foundation. Large research networks are formed in this format that enable science and industry to work together on technical solutions for interdisciplinary fields. The consolidation of expertise available across Bavaria promises to yield excellent and utilizable results.”

As one of only two research networks to receive funding, ForNeRo hopes to make it possible to embed surgical robotics in the operating room and bring the software together with humans in a meaningful way. This will make operations safer and more effective at the same time.

Micro-robotics on the eye

While they may be new, they are no longer merely a fantasy. Robots that provide assistance during eye surgery are already in use for some indications. When performing surgery at the rear section of the eye, surgeons have to use instruments very close to the retina which is very sensitive. “Retinal surgery uses fine mechanics and requires high levels of precision and, at the same time, extremely low levels of force,” explains Prof. Franziska Mathis-Ullrich, sub-project manager of ForNeRo. “These are forces that are below human levels of perception.” When surgeons work with existing systems, these systems can increase the precision of movements carried out by humans. However, up to now, these systems do not operate autonomously. Robots that can work partially autonomously could offer even greater added value for eye surgeons.  The aim of the research project is to automate steps of eye surgery to such an extent that the assistance systems reduce the strain on surgeons and make particularly challenging procedures easier. In the micro-robotics sub-project, Mathis-Ullrich and the research network hope to find out what such semi-automated steps could look like and how the collaboration between humans and machines could function intuitively and efficiently.

Robotic assistance systems not yet sufficiently integrated

Even though they are already in use in operating rooms, robotic assistance systems are not very well adapted to procedures and conditions. The ForNeRo research network hopes to improve this. Eye surgery involves surgeons working in the smallest of spaces as the working area of the eye is very small. This means that ergonomic factors such as the interaction between humans and machines must be considered. In addition, the researchers use simulations, augmented-reality applications and user interface technologies to create a workspace that is as efficient as possible for the collaboration between staff in the operating room and robotic systems. “Staff have to place the robot at the eye of the patient as efficiently as possible. This means we have to simulate how the operation will take place and how this will influence the robotic assistance system,” says Mathis-Ullrich. “Interactions also have to be analyzed in order to integrate the robotic system.” For example, this includes how the system would interact with patients, staff in the OR or other systems.

About the ForNeRO research network

As part of the High-Tech Agenda Bavaria, researchers intend to investigate the challenges of robotics and medical engineering and continue to boost the position of Bavaria as a high-tech location. The research network comprises six research institutions and five up-and-coming companies. More information about ForNeRo is available on the research network’s website.

Further information

Prof. Franziska Mathis-Ullrich
Surgical Planning and Robotic Cognition (SPARC)