Education And Debate

Robots in operating theatres

BMJ 1995; 311 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.311.7018.1479 (Published 02 December 1995) Cite this as: BMJ 1995;311:1479
  1. R A Buckingham, senior house officera,
  2. RO Buckingham, lecturerb
  1. aSouthmead Hospital, Bristol BS10 5NB
  2. bAdvanced Manufacturing and Automation Research Centre, Faculty of Engineering, University of Bristol, Bristol BS8 1TR
  1. Correspondence to: Dr R O Buckingham
  • Accepted 30 August 1995

Robots designed for surgery have three main advantages over humans. They have greater three dimensional spatial accuracy, are more reliable, and can achieve much greater precision. Although few surgical robots are yet in clinical trials one or two have advanced to the stage of seeking approval from the UK's Medical Devices Agency and the US Federal Drug Administration. Safety is a key concern. A robotic device can be designed in an intrinsically safe way by restricting its range of movement to an area where it can do no damage. Furthermore, safety can be increased by making it passive, guided at all times by a surgeon. Nevertheless, some of the most promising developments may come from robots that are active (monitored rather than controlled by the surgeon) and not limited to intrinsically safe motion.

Research into the use of robotic technology in operating theatres has reached a critical stage in the United Kingdom and around the world. Many systems that can be described as “robotic” are now working in laboratories, and some are undergoing trials in operating theatres. Although the United States leads in this work, Europe is well placed since the litigious nature of American society makes full clinical use a risky venture.

Robots designed for surgery have three main advantages over humans. Firstly, they have greater three dimensional spatial accuracy, especially when linked to scanning technology. Secondly, systems can be designed to be more reliable and produce more repeatable outcomes, and, finally, robots can achieve a precision at least an order of magnitude greater than that achievable by humans. This article explains some of the background to the development of surgical robotics and illustrates the current state of the technology by describing some of the leading developments from around the world.

Possibilities and problems

The most exciting reason for pursuing robotic technology …

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