Imagine a day when a surgeon can perform an operation from behind a console while a robotic arm does all the precision work. That day has come, as more and more robots are stepping in to perform delicate and precise surgical procedures, from tumour removal to spinal surgery.

We can thank decades of space exploration for this achievement. Some of the most advanced surgical robots have their roots in aerospace research, where for years mega-sized robotic arms have been doing everything from space station and satellite repairs to extracting samples from planet surfaces. Today those components have been shrunk down to size to bring the same capabilities to the surgical suite.

Robotic surgery: the new normal

The use of robotics in surgery has been growing rapidly. For example, Canadian Surgical Technologies & Advanced Robotics at London Health Sciences Centre reports a 100-fold increase in robotics surgeries in the country in the last 10 years.

One technology at the heart of this is MDA Corporation's Canadarm. Launched in 1981, it combines 3D visualization, programming and robotic components that can take on complex mechanical jobs in space that astronauts can't.

"The move to medical applications is a natural one for an industry that demands precision and reliability in the most challenging environmental conditions," says Craig Thornton, vice president and general manager for MDA's Robotics and Automation division. "Sure, space robotics is an exciting area of research and development. But new projects opportunities don't come all that often. So we decided to take Canadarm technology and look for where it can be applied; medical robotics was an obvious choice."

One of MDA's early ventures into the operating suite was the NeuroArm. It's an image-guided robotic system that integrates with an MRI machine. With it, neurosurgeons can recreate the sight, sound and touch for surgery from a computer station using real-time imaging.

Another collaboration, with McMaster University's Centre for Surgical Invention and Innovation in Hamilton, led to the development of the Image Guided Automated Robot (IGAR). It uses robotic technology to automatically and accurately guide biopsy needles for breast cancer patients.

It's not just the big players putting a space-age spin on surgical procedures. Synaptive Medical is a start-up in Toronto that has developed a neurosurgical technique to detect, diagnose, treat and monitor brain disease, and is leading the pack when it comes to robotic surgery companies. Its integrated optical imaging and robotic automation system lets neurosurgeons navigate the human brain more precisely while minimizing trauma to the surrounding tissue.

An image showing MDA’s Corporations’ NeuroArm, an image-guided robotic systems that integrates with an MRI machine.
MDA Corporation’s NeuroArm, an image-guided robotic system that integrates with an MRI machine.

Robotic surgery innovations save time and money

While the technology innovation is impressive, so are the time and cost savings. According to Cameron Piron, co-founder and president of Synaptive Medical, neurological procedures are the most expensive to run in the OR, coming in at a cost of $250 per minute. He estimates that automation can reduce time spent per surgery by 25% and virtually eliminate dural tear rates. "That could translate into one extra surgery a day and reduce the need for resections by 50%."

"That's why robotic surgery is a hotbed of research in the country and beyond," he adds. "Five years ago there was one company in Canada in surgical interventional robotics. Now I've lost count."

The rise in surgical robotics makes perfect sense, since the technology was originally designed to meet the most stringent safety and risk management standards in the world, says MDA's Tim Reedman, director, Commercial Systems. "After all, there is no room for failure in space."

April 25, 2016

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