When you live in this era of nearly unlimited technological possibility, losing a limb no longer seems like the end of the world. In fact, for most people, this is just the beginning. Gone are the days when prosthetics look and feel awkward. With the advent of robotics in the field of prosthetics, the question now has become, what can you not do?
With every passing year, the field of robotic prosthetics has become increasingly sophisticated. Joints are so well-articulated that they are almost life-like. Bionic skins mimic the real thing. At the MIT Biomechatronics lab, gyroscopically actuated robotic limbs can track their location within a three-dimensional space. Even today, that’s a giant leap forward in the realm of prostheses, when most artificial limbs are already made of space-age materials like carbon or titanium. Robotics isn’t just replacing limbs. They’re replicating them to achieve the next best thing: an artificial limb that you can actually use like it was real.
With a prosthesis, many patients find they are still capable human beings with much to offer the world. With the added advantage of robotics in prosthetics technology, patients can gain much of the independence they may have lost along with their limbs. Though integral to the recovery of patients, most of these robotic prostheses can still be expensive and may be out of range for the average patient. To counter this, some companies offer robotic alternatives that can be easily built as a DIY to expand access to more people.
Technological advancements, though costly, bring much help and relief to those who lost a limb. However, the best image it brings is hope. Hope that they can regain full functionality. Also, they hope to resume the activities they’ve always loved. And, finally, the hope that they can live unhindered life – full of joy and cognizant of the fact that science has given them one of the best gifts it can ever give: a second chance.
Robotic Exoskeletons: A Marriage of Man and Machine
Let’s be honest: who doesn’t want to be Iron Man – or at least look like him? For most of us, the closest we’ll come to an exoskeleton, essentially what the iron suit is, would probably be a costume. For disabled patients, however, a robotic orthosis is more than just a suit; it is an indispensable support system that gives them maximum use of their bodies.
We’re giving it bonus points for looking incredibly cool, but what’s even cooler about the exoskeleton is that it can achieve what years of therapy or countless surgeries can’t do. It can help paralyzed people walk, correct malformations, and even supplement rehabilitation among patients with severe injuries that limit their ability to move. Most existing exoskeletons have yet to achieve the smooth interface of the brain-body connection. They work through a series of sensors that monitor and respond to user movements – not exactly the most intuitive system. However, with the speed at which robotics technology is advancing, it’s safe to say it won’t be long before anyone can be Iron Man.
Hand sanitizer, masks, PPE – all of these items instantly became household staples when the Covid-19 pandemic came barging in through the first few months of 2020, disrupting many routine activities and even creating massive shortages in cleaning supplies. To curb the rampant spread of the virus, hospitals needed to step up their sanitation and disinfection systems. Good thing robotics was there to save the day, or in this case, our precious healthcare workers.
Sanitation and disinfectant robots have taken the burden off the laborious and often meticulous process of cleaning hospitals and clinics, especially when trying to fend off invisible particles that may escape human inspection. Now, you can sterilize rooms at the touch of a button. With a sophisticated array of UV lights, you can leave robots inside a room and sanitize all surface areas that the UV light touches. The time-consuming yet critical task of cleaning is now much easier and safer for people who would otherwise have to come into contact with potential pathogens.
Radiotherapy Robots: High-Precision Cancer Treatment
Let’s face it. Nobody ever wishes cancer on even their worst enemies – the word alone is enough to suck the air out of a crowded room. Treatments can be daunting, exhausting, and can be hit or miss. Take radiotherapy, for example: while it is an effective way of treating cancer, it requires patients to lie extremely still. Any movement, even if only a few millimeters, will result in a significantly less effective treatment. Radiotherapy targets cancer cells with intense radiation to kill off the diseased cells. However, if the radiation hits any healthy cells surrounding its intended target, those healthy cells will also die.
In response to this dilemma, robotics technology has made existing radiotherapy machines more sophisticated and accurate. The computer-controlled robotic arm of the radiotherapy machine moves around the patient and determines precisely where the beam of radiation needs to go. The patient doesn’t need to move, nor do clinicians need to move them manually. You can adjust the robot even from a distance. All the patient needs to do is relax, focus on getting their treatment and be one step closer to beating cancer – with the help of robotics.
There’s nothing novel about the idea of a vending machine, but have you ever seen one dispense medication? I didn’t think so. However, that doesn’t mean the technology isn’t there or that it isn’t the direction that the future of pharmacies seems to be going. With the help of robotics, even pharmacies are on their way to becoming completely automated.
One such machine already exists at the University of California in San Francisco. Since 2011, the automated pharmacy has been doing what pharmacists and nurses manually do for years. The massive robots tower over people. They can pick a package and dispense medication with complete accuracy, with reports showing absolutely no errors made in over 350,000 doses the robotic system prepared at its initial phase in. This successful operation has helped UCSF achieve at least three of its goals. The first is providing a safer environment for pharmacy employees who often have to handle toxic chemotherapy medication. It also improves patient safety by delivering precise dosages and correct drugs. Finally, pharmacists and nurses have the freedom to focus more on providing direct patient care.
What would the medical industry be without nurses? They are the vital essence of healthcare and one of, if not the most indispensable, pillars of this field. They are also, sadly, overworked and underappreciated. It is no wonder that hospitals are chronically understaffed, finding that good nurses are always in short supply, which is why solving this problem is at the core of the development of robot nurses.
Most robot nurses in circulation today take on easily delegated and automated tasks. Things like digital paperwork, measuring vital signs, and monitoring a patient’s condition are all within the realm of what you can expect a working robot nurse to accomplish daily. This is crucial as it relieves nurses of straightforward yet burdensome tasks. However, new advancements in this technology are working on taking even more burden off nurses – literally. Some experimental robots can do quite a bit of heavy lifting. They can transfer patients from bed to wheelchair and vice versa, while others can move carts and gurneys from room to room, and a few can even be programmed to draw blood.
They may look a little strange, these faces smiling out of a screen mounted on what looks like a tall robot vacuum, moving around and having conversations with actual people. This may strike you as a scene from a futuristic sci-fi film, but it is actually how telepresence robots work in a healthcare environment. They expand access to top-notch healthcare by allowing more patients to reach medical professionals without traveling far.
Now, a patient from a small town in Indiana can get real-time expert consultations from top doctors in New York through telepresence robots without having to spend exorbitant amounts of money on travel expenses or needing to take time off work. Patients from rural communities and remote locations benefit from this extraordinary technology. These bots had also become particularly useful at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, enabling both patients and physicians to interact safely from a distance, especially when consultations were merely routine and did not require an extensive physical examination.
Lab Robots: the Driving Force Behind the Scenes of Medicine
Lab robots have been around for the last 30 years and for good reason. Many of the tasks in a laboratory are candidates for automation. Robots also make the job and environment safe. Many processes that deal with harmful chemicals or toxic radiation have been handled primarily by these machines. Pharmaceutical companies, for example, have employed lab robots for years, delegating the movement and handling of biological and chemical samples to these machines.
Similar to their industrial counterparts, laboratory robots have flourished in the medical industry because of their speed, precision, and ability to replicate tasks accurately. They have effectively reduced human error and consequently made science practice safer and far more reliable than before.
These days, people aren’t the only ones you’ll be sharing the hallways with when you happen to be in a hospital. With the prevalence of robotics in the medical field, you shouldn’t be surprised to find yourself crossing paths with a hospital robot on your way to the doctor’s office. Likewise, you might while riding on the elevator. Why? Because hospital robots can do precisely that. Pre-programmed with the layout of their intended environment, hospital robots have built-in sensors that allow them to move autonomously. They can go from room to room and floor to floor. More importantly, they can deliver medications, meals, and collected specimens. They go can from one location to the next effectually.
Using robots to automate simple, uncomplicated tasks is a great way for hospitals to maximize the available workforce. That is, without sacrificing time and quality. This frees other critical hospital employees to focus on tasks that require a more personal approach. Those are the tasks only humans can satisfactorily perform. Nevertheless, robots like these are also crucial, especially at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. Why? Becasue they allow for contactless transactions, greatly limiting virus transmission.
Not all robots in the medical field are programmed to perform highly specialized tasks. Other robots have a more general purpose: to relieve the daily burden on healthcare workers by taking on routine logistical tasks. These tasks include setting up patients’ rooms, restocking medical supplies, tracking those supplies, and even filing purchase orders. Many robots are completely autonomous and can send reports once they’ve completed their tasks.
These robots are already contributing to their respective facilities. One such robot is the TUG Robot by Aethon. It navigates the complex and changing environments. Doing what? Safely delivering linens to nursing units on both a scheduled and on-demand basis. Other robots are deployed for cleaning and disinfection with the use of UV lights, hydrogen peroxide vapors, or air filtration. By delegating these straightforward tasks to robots, healthcare personnel have more time to focus on immediate patient needs. Together, it lightens their load and increases job satisfaction.
These guys are designed to be more human-like than other robots in the medical field. Social robots, as the name implies, provide social interaction with patients. They encourage people and offer cognitive support. At times, they can even demonstrate how to perform certain activities. Mental health becoming an increasing concern in the field of healthcare. Thus, social robots play a crucial role in fulfilling our inherent need for human connection.
Hospitals aren’t the only places where social robots are finding an indispensable role in patient care. Nursing homes, senior living facilities, and other areas that care for the elderly also find that social robots have a place in their community. These friendly machines provide a kind of companionship that older people often miss as they navigate old age. Furthermore, they are without the daily interaction they usually get when they are still living with family members. Bots’ reliability adds to their appeal as a companion to patients. They thrive when they receive constant and consistent social contact.
There’s a reason why doctors undergo grueling years of study, internships, fellowships, and residency. When your job is as high stakes as life and death, you don’t just jump in straight out of school and do things on the fly. It takes years before surgeons handle a knife in their first operation. They dedicate much of their time to training with cadavers. However, what if it were possible to simulate a real medical situation without having to worry about the stakes being so high? Wouldn’t it be a relief to both patient and doctor to know that their training was superb in quality? Of course, without the possibility of having to pay such a high price as a life.
That’s what clinical training robots are about. They simulate real-life situations to educate and help sharpen a clinician’s skills and knowledge. Patients don’t have to feel like guinea pigs all the time when robots can take their place in simulating an infinite combination of situations that will test a healthcare provider’s understanding. An example of this is an AI robot named Pediatric Hal. Pediatric Hal is programmed as a five-year-old and can exhibit many symptoms and conditions, allowing doctors to prepare for even the rarest, most obscure scenario.
Of the many amazing things, robotics has already contributed to the field of medicine, marrying it with Artificial Intelligence and deploying it for use in medical diagnosis is perhaps one of the most brilliant and impactful ways to apply it. We can teach AI robots how to identify an illness accurately. Through machine learning, the AI receives thousands of examples enabling it to perform this task better than humans.
A handful of notable examples of AI diagnostic robots already impacting the world of healthcare. According to its website, one is the FDNA system, which employs a sophisticated AI to capture, structure, and analyze complex human physiological data to produce actionable genomic insights. With a database of complex genetic information associated with over 10,000 diseases, the FDNA is leading the medical field in providing accurate diagnoses of genetic diseases. It helps patients understand what once seemed like obscure conditions. Furthermore, it supports medical practitioners in their quest to provide better treatments for those under their care.
Imagine always being one step ahead of a highly transmissible disease and stopping it in its tracks before it spirals out of control. Wouldn’t that be the proactive, preventive world we want to live in? Sadly, we only realized how crucial the field of epidemiology is after the initial horrors of the Covid-19 pandemic. And now that we have the luxury of analyzing the situation in hindsight, the role Artificial Intelligence plays in epidemiology takes on an even more urgent light – one that seeks to prevent the next pathogen from wreaking indescribable havoc in our already ravaged world.
But why do we turn to AI to accomplish this? Simply put, the amount of data and analysis required to crunch the numbers and make accurate predictions so far into the future is too much for even a relatively powerful computer to handle. Conversely, AI can use machine learning to glean new information from even the most obscure data sets. It is also very handy for identifying patterns and making projections based on data collected by doctors and researchers, allowing it to get ahead of a potential outbreak.
AI seems to be everywhere, so it’s not surprising that some medical advice comes from software, not doctors. With the increasing popularity of telemedicine, more and more artificial intelligence applications are being deployed not necessarily to take the place of doctors but to support them as they provide more accurate diagnoses and more targeted care. Treatment plans, for example, don’t have to be so cookie-cutter. AI can come up with a more nuanced, personalized plan of care that considers the highly individualized needs of each patient.
Similarly, AI is also being used to transform the healing process through health and fitness coaching. A popular virtual reality fitness game,’ Supernatural,’ is an example. Created with the help of hundreds of recordings of real fitness trainers, this game is collated and delivered by an AI’ coach’, making the process of recovery not just a more positive experience but much more individualized as well because of the presence of a ‘personal trainer.’
If you’ve ever had an endoscopy before, you’ll probably know that this type of procedure involves having a small camera mounted on a long wire inserted through a ‘natural opening’ in the body. I know that doesn’t sound like something you’d care to know about if you’ve never had one. However, endoscopies are actually a crucial first step in disease prevention and diagnosis. The scope looks for damage, abnormalities, or foreign objects in your body. For some, that could be an uncomfortable procedure, so count yourself lucky not to have had one, but if you have, then the good news is you probably won’t have to do this again in the future. With the help of endoscopy bots, this procedure could soon become a thing of the past.
Instead, imagine a small robot that can remotely control the delicate work inside the body. Because of its size and wireless feature, it can do the work of a scope without the discomfort of the long wire, or an inevitable tremor or two from the hands that operate them. These robots are also much more precise and, like a veritable Swiss knife; it can deploy various tools, from taking a biopsy to cauterizing a wound.
Another way that robotics has developed to treat diseases is through a device called targeted therapy microbes. Essentially, targeted therapy is a way to curb the growth of a damaging cell by targeting the proteins that control how it spreads through the body. How is this possible? By deploying near-microscopic mechanical particles to specific areas of the body. There, they can deliver a drug or other therapy to target the disease.
This kind of technology is relatively new. However, it is already making waves in the medical field as a high-precision alternative to cancer treatment. Imagine having the ability to save healthy cells from damage by delivering radiation only to the cells that need them. Or, imagie being able to confine the side effects of medication only to the organ that needs them. With targeted therapy microbots, we don’t have to sacrifice the whole to save the parts! These miraculous little bots could propel themselves into our bloodstream and get to the precise location of the disease. There’s no need to play Russian roulette with our health here. Using bots to do targeted therapy is, indeed, life-changing.
A machine made of gold? Fancy! But though this minuscule robot may be made of finer things, its purpose is serious. That is to clear bacterial infections directly from a patient’s blood by using precisely those same gold nanowires, which have been coated with platelets and red blood cells, to do the work. And what ingenious work it is, if I may say so. If antibacterial nanobots were to gain traction in the field of medicine, then we don’t have to rely so much on antibiotics to clear our bodies of infections. These broad-spectrum drugs often leave our bodies resistant to future iterations of the same bacteria, becoming less effective and contributing to the rise of superbugs or drug-resistant bacteria.
Nanorobots, however, can do the same work as an antibacterial drug without the possibility of drug resistance. It works by mimicking a bacterium and its toxin’s target, then trapping the bacteria in the nanowire mesh when it comes close. And because it is a robot, it can be controlled and directed precisely through the body to treat localized infections. Paired with targeted ultrasound, it also can speed up the process of clearing an infection, making it an excellent candidate for treating bacterial infections.
Bigger isn’t always better, at least not when it comes to robots in surgery. Most of the robots we encounter in surgery looks like big hulking pieces of machinery or sleek mechanical arms. However, a branch of robotics explores surgical equipment in the opposite direction, making a robot so small as to virtually eliminate the need for opening up the body through an incision. Instead, microbots, which could be as small as a human cell, can be deployed into the human body and perform surgeries from within! How cool is that?
While scientists have been working on microbots for years, the technology is yet to become mainstream. Because of their size, microbots can be challenging to control and maneuver, especially when used in delicate surgeries. As such, they are still in the testing phase. Researchers are figuring out better ways to deploy microbots as well as make them more pliable and responsive as a tool in the hands of experienced surgeons. But once they do become a legitimate surgical tool, patients can look forward to a faster, less painful recovery and an ideal healing process.
Nanoparticles, robotic biopsies with an MRI, nanodevices with ‘treatment payloads’ — oh my! The potential for robotics applications in medicine is so far-reaching you’d have to get in line. There are plenty of exciting ideas in the realm of robotics in medicine. People just need time to flesh them all out. There is no shortage of scientific minds willing to take on these challenges. For example, a team of mechanical and robotics engineers is working on compact, high-precision robots that can operate within the bore of an MRI scanner. Their goal is to improve the accuracy of prostate biopsies. However, they face a challenge in making a robot that works despite magnets in the MRI.
Other potential game-changing robotics research is on nanoparticles and nanodevices that are even smaller than microbots. This experiment in size aims to develop a small robot that can pass through the blood-brain barrier, allowing them to carry payloads to even more precise locations that are unreachable by current microbot or nanobot technology. Considering all this, the future is bright for robotics in medicine. However, even more importantly, these robots show us not just the possibility of a better future. They also reveal the unshakeable spirit of human innovation that drives us to search for answers continually. We seek to improve everything, especially healthcare, just a little bit.