How Can Robotics Be Implemented for Remote Surgery?

23 May 2024

Is it strange to think a robot could operate on you one day? Although the healthcare industry is famous for being a late adopter of the latest technology, it’s quickly picked up robotics. The tech advances as professionals explore it, meaning there are plenty of use cases for machine-assisted remote surgeries.

Can robotic surgery be done remotely?

The short answer is yes — surgeons can use robots to operate on patients even if they’re not in the same place. Remote surgery — also known as telesurgery — uses wireless networking technology and live imaging to connect them to the operating room, regardless of location.

Nearly 40% of people believe these machines can perform surgeries — and they’re right. You’re living in a world where tech has advanced to the point where you don’t have to be in the same room as a doctor to receive care.

What technology is used in robotic surgery?

While the specific tech surgery robots use depends on the type of operation, most share the same basic features. Many use fifth-generation (5G) wireless networking to establish connections. Operators need a console — an interactive interface — to do anything remotely.

Most machines have at least one articulated arm to grasp, cut, or guide the operation. They also use a high-definition, 360-degree camera, and live imaging tech to feed visual information to the operator — how else would surgeons perform remote surgery?

Some of the latest versions use haptic feedback tech, enabling them to mimic the operators’ movements on the console. Others use artificial intelligence. Considering a convolution neural network model can identify brain tumors with 97.4% accuracy, it’s a good tool.

Examples of robots performing medical operations

You might be surprised to find out dozens of surgery robots already exist.

The da Vinci robot

The da Vinci robot got its name because its creators consider the term “robotic-assisted surgery” misleading, saying people perform operations, not the machines. In this context, the callback to Leonardo da Vinci — the famous artist, engineer and sculptor — makes sense.

This machine has performed millions of anastomoses — connecting two parts of a blood vessel — while recording data on how surgeons use their instruments to complete their tasks. This way, it can tell them which techniques and wrist positions improve patient outcomes the most.

The spacefaring robot

Engineers from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) did what nobody ever has — they sent a surgical robot to the International Space Station. Weighing only two pounds, it’s 1,000 times lighter than any other telerobotic system.

Surgeons on Earth will use the robot’s camera and two articulated arms to perform simulated surgery in space. As impressive as this sounds, there’s no telling how it’ll go. Even though the launch was in January 2024, UNL won’t publish results until 2025 at the earliest.

The augmented reality robot

In 2020, two doctors performed a lifesaving surgery on a person with cancer. It doesn’t sound out of the ordinary until you learn they never touched him — and were thousands of miles apart. The patient was immunocompromised, so telesurgery was the only safe option during COVID.

One surgeon stood six feet from the patient, using the machine’s four articulated arms to insert a camera tube into the problem area. Meanwhile, the other sat in their living room in a pajama robe, using an augmented reality pointer to guide the step-by-step operation.

The joystick robot

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) engineers developed a telerobotic system for treating victims of strokes. The operator uses a modified joystick and a live video feed to control an articulated arm, adjusting it with magnets to guide a soft, thin magnetic wire through arteries and vessels to remove blood clots that cause strokes. The goal is to treat patients during a brief window of opportunity where treatment can preserve brain function and save lives.

The advantages of robotic medical operations

Plenty of people live in healthcare deserts — areas where there aren’t enough medical resources, staff, or facilities to go around. Statistically, you’re probably one of them. In the U.S., over 80% of counties are considered healthcare deserts, forcing residents to deal with long waits and high costs.

Robotic-assisted surgery could eliminate this problem by bringing medical professionals wherever they’re needed. For example, a neurovascular surgeon could remotely treat a stroke victim in Atlanta from their office in Chicago.

There’s no longer a need for travel, either. If you’ve ever visited a specialist, you probably drove out of your way to see them. Some people with chronic illnesses even move to improve their access to care. Now that telesurgery exists, you may just have to visit your local hospital.

Another massive benefit involves patient outcomes — these machines are literally saving lives. They reduce hand tremors, enable early intervention, and are highly precise, lowering the risk of infection, blood loss, and complications.

Past robotic-assisted surgeries prove medical professionals can provide care without experiencing software glitches or connection delays, meaning this tech is just as safe as being operated on by a robot-less human.

Ways robotics can be used for remote surgery

There are three main ways you could use robots for remote surgeries.

  1. Articulated robots

Articulated robots are among the most common in the medical field because they can do most things human hands can — they can insert tubes, make incisions, or administer medication. Operators can use them to carry out tasks remotely, lending their expertise to operations they otherwise would’ve never been a part of.

2. Autonomous robots

Although the healthcare industry is wary of adopting fully autonomous robotics, professionals and researchers are testing the tech. The idea is that a human will remotely oversee the operation while the machine carries out its tasks.

  1. Collaborative robots

Medical professionals often call on their colleagues or well-known individuals in their field for help — even doctors can’t be experts on everything. In these situations, they usually want guidance on where to make incisions or how to perform complex operations. Using collaborative robotics, their assistant can help them regardless of their location.

Will robots replace surgeons in the future?

It’s highly unlikely these machines will replace surgeons in the future. Although autonomous versions exist, you can probably agree most people won’t be comfortable being operated on by a machine without some level of human involvement. For now, these inventions are purely assistants.


Kaspersky’s The Future of Jobs report

Deep Learning for Tumor Classification

Intuitive’s Robotic-Assisted Surgery Technology

The Smithsonian’s Report on the ISS Robot

Wired Report on Robotic-Assisted Surgery

MIT’s Report on the Joystick Robot

The GoodRX Report on Healthcare Deserts

Telesurgey and Robotics: An Improve and Efficient Era