Complex Made Simple

Robots in OR: Surgically replacing MDs

Several industries are seeing the impact of robotics — and medicine is no exception. Your life could depend on them now

Toyota is developing solutions to serve an aging population, while Johnson & Johnson is heavily investing in medical robotics In 2018, the Mako system performed nearly 80,000 knee and hip replacements in over 650 locations Bots can travel inside humans to diagnose diseases, detect abnormalities, or identify potential at-risk patients

Excerpted from CBinsights

The impact could be huge: robotics in medicine can help to reduce human error, improve recovery time, and reduce hospital stays, ultimately enhancing patients’ quality of life.

The first medical robotic application appeared in 1985, when an early robotic surgical arm assisted in a neurosurgical biopsy surgery.  

Today, companies are leveraging advances in the tech to develop new robotic applications to explore the future of medicine — including those related to bionics, disease discovery, and rehabilitation.

Elon Musk’s Neuralink, for example, is working to develop cutting-edge technology to give amputees a better connection to their prosthetics. Auto giant Toyota is developing solutions to serve an aging population, while Johnson & Johnson is heavily investing in medical robotics.


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Robots in the OR

When it comes to surgery, robotics is mostly serving as a high-tech surgical assistant that can help doctors perform minimally invasive surgeries — especially in hard to reach or micro areas.

Notably, one of the most popular robotic tools is also one of the oldest: the da Vinci surgery system. However, it’s seeing an increasing number of competitors on the scene.

This “robotic revolution” kicked off in earnest in late 2013, when medical technologies firm Stryker bought Mako Surgical, maker of devices for knee and hip replacement surgeries, for $1.65 Bn.

Mako knee replacement robot, Source: MedCity News

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Mako’s system can create a 3D model of a joint based on a CT scan, allowing the surgeon to pre-operatively plan for each individual patient.  

In 2018, the Mako system performed nearly 80,000 knee and hip replacements in over 650 locations.

The Mako device costs an estimated $1M.)

In an effort to create a direct competitor to the Mako system, Johnson & Johnson’s orthopedics business, DePuy Synthes, acquired Paris-based Orthotaxy.

Orthotaxy has created and developed a surgical robot prototype the size of a shoe box to assist on knee surgeries. Its small size (and smaller price tag) may be a differentiator in the market. Johnson & Johnson has been showcasing the prototype, with an eye on a debut in 2020.

Another interesting development in robotic surgery is the potential for doctors to perform minimally invasive procedures remotely.

The first complete remote surgery took place in 2001, when a surgeon in New York used the Zeus robotic surgical system to remotely remove the gallbladder of a patient in France. Since then, many companies have explored “telesurgery,” though the tech remains in the early stages.

Down the road, remote robot-enabled surgery could be particularly beneficial for use cases such as battlefield medical treatment and even long space exploration missions.

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Robots for disease discovery

From microscopic bots that can travel inside the human body to robots to diagnose diseases, detect abnormalities, or identify potential at-risk patients, the next big breakthrough is ongoing.

Capsule endoscopy has been FDA-approved and in use since 2001. The procedure involves putting a tiny camera inside a pill-sized casing. The “pill” is swallowed by patients, and while it makes its way through the GI tract, the camera takes images that doctors can use to determine if there are abnormalities.

Doctors are still at the mercy of how the pill navigates through a patient’s system. They can’t control where the pill goes and what pictures are taken, yet.

Now, new technology is looking to give doctors and medical practitioners a way to direct the movement of a pillbot via remote control.

Startups and companies involved in bionics today are looking to create replacement limbs that actually operate like the human body.

One company focusing directly on that market is Open Bionics, a UK-based firm trying to make prosthetics more affordable. The company recently completed a Series A round of just under $6M.

Open Bionics uses 3D printing technology to create its “hero arm,” which is now available for sale across parts of Europe and the US. The lightweight bionic hands can pick up small objects, grip, and hold.

Some companies want to connect prosthetics with the nervous system and the brain.

Bios is one company exploring how neural technology can impact bionics. The England-based neural engineering startup, which recently raised $4.5M in seed funding, is looking for ways to create neural connections between the body and prosthetic limbs.

The main technology the company is implementing has been dubbed as a “USB connector for the body.”   


Collaborative robots, or cobots — robots developed to work beside humans — is another area where bionics is looking to make some big moves.

Cobots are increasingly being used in industrial and factory settings, providing a way for humans to interact with robots safely

The growth of rehabilitation robots

Rehabilitation are being used to help patients recover from strokes and other traumatic brain injuries, as well as help users regain strength, coordination, and agility.

The global rehabilitation robot market is estimated to be worth $2B+, according to CB Insights’ Industry Analyst Consensus.

German-based Reactive Robotics is developing the VEMO rehabilitation system, which is designed to help start rehabbing patients while they are still bedridden in critical or intensive care units. A robotic assistant helps move bedridden patients’ legs so they can perform rehab exercises.


One other non-surgical area that is seeing growth is telepresence robots. These robots allow medical professionals to communicate with patients remotely.

InTouch Healthcare created Dr. Robot in 2003. The robot, which works through internet or wireless systems, has a video screen mounted on it to let patients and doctors remotely communicate “face to face.”

A twist on the conventional telepresence robot is one that can track and move on its own, perhaps even going room to room to do “rounds” just as a doctor would in a hospital.

A player to watch here is Ava Robotics, a startup which spun out of Roomba-maker iRobot. The company has developed a robot that can connect with a built-in Cisco conferencing system and uses iRobot technology to map and maneuver through a room on its own.

Source: Ava Robotics