Surgical robots are integral to the field of medical engineering, where they are primarily associated with medical robotics, and their importance is increasing constantly. The general application area of medical robotics covers the medical field as a whole, while the specific field of surgical robotics is restricted to the environment of the operating theatre.

While medical equipment outside the operating theatre tends to be capable of fully autonomous and automatic operation, surgical robots are as a rule actively controlled by the operator to enable them to perform required movements on the basis of intelligent software.

Optimising processes by means of intelligent software. For this reason, such configurations are often referred to as telemanipulators. Such devices are able to register human actions, such as movements, and to realise them in a deliberate manner.

Surgical robots are employed in an assisting role, generally performing activities that are beyond the limits of human capability, either from a qualitative or a quantitative perspective.

The number of surgical robots in use in hospitals and clinics is increasing constantly. The idea of robots being involved in activities that play such a fundamental role in determining whether a person lives or dies is still regarded with some scepticism within the general population. However, on the whole, there is an increasing acceptance of the use of technical innovations in the operating theatre.

Structure of surgical robots

Although surgical robots vary greatly in terms of their size and shape, when it comes to their component configuration they generally display fundamental similarities. They are usually based on a control unit, coupled with a manipulator, which embodies the robot arm and is made up of a series of segments that include joints, sensors, drive systems and an effector. The latter forms the link between the surgical robot and its environment, and it is here that it comes into contact with the human body, for instance by way of a gripper.

To ensure maximum working precision, the gears employed in robot joints must be capable of operating within stringent requirements. Harmonic Drive® gears, such as the units in the HFUS-2SO series, are characterised by their compact construction, smooth operation and zero play.

The controller unit is the element that links the surgical robot’s integrated technologies with the user; it therefore represents the interface between technology and humans. In the context of surgical procedures, the operator works actively in unison with the robot by exercising control over the robotic arm. Activations and movements of a joystick, console or other control element are translated and realised by the robot through its intelligent software. This is known as telemanipulated control.

Fields of application of surgical robots

The capabilities and characteristics of modern surgical robots are particularly apparent in the context of minimal invasion procedures of the type used in so-called keyhole surgery. Such procedures involve very small incisions of a magnitude of a few millimetres. This not only protects the patient from having to endure protracted post-operative discomfort but also minimises the length of hospital stays as well as resulting in cosmetic benefits, such as inconspicuous scars. Robot instructions in the form of movements given by the operator can be reproduced on a smaller scale and performed accordingly by the robotic arm. This enables incisions to be made with millimetre precision.

In the field of orthopaedics, for instance, surgical robots can be used for the precise  insertion of knee joint prostheses. As the anatomy of the human knee joint varies greatly from one individual to another, it is not possible to use standardised processes when performing such knee operations. Surgical robots provide assistance in such situations by monitoring the movements of the operator on the basis of a previously configured 3D model and correcting them as and when required.

Even though the field of applications in which surgical robots are found is largely dominated by surgical procedures, for instance in fields such as laparoscopic surgery, heart-thorax surgery, orthopaedics and trauma surgery, an enormous potential for further applications can be found in various other specialist disciplines. One example is the field of otorhinolaryngology.

Surgical robots in use – precision, effectiveness and remote access

The use of surgical robots brings about a great number of significant benefits. For instance, depending on the robot’s construction, individual elements, such as its manipulator, are able to move freely within a space. This means that movements can be performed and positions assumed that would be problematic or even impossible for humans to achieve. In addition, surgical robots allow precise and sustained activity, while permitting innovative insights thanks to their integrated imaging procedures and camera positions.

The operator can guide the surgical procedure from a distance, controlling the robot’s movements and actions from an external console. The latter is linked to an eyepiece that enables the operator to observe what is happening. Furthermore, medical robots are detached from mental and emotional impulses and thus operate with a very high level of precision – both from a spatial and a temporal perspective.