Cognitive Computing

Revolutionizing rural surgeries with robots

Highly specialized surgical expertise tends to collect in major medical centers and metropolitan areas, which is a problem if you’re one of the millions of people not living in one.

Juan Wachs, an associate professor of industrial engineering and a faculty member with the Regenstrief Center for Healthcare Engineering, and Voicu Popescu, associate professor of computer science, considered this challenge of rural America as an opportunity. They proposed a new telementoring system using robotics and augmented reality to enable surgeons in rural areas to receive expert training in real time without losing any benefits of an in-person, trainer-trainee relationship. 

Called STAR (System for Telementoring with Augmented Reality), the technology combines Wachs’ gesture recognition and robotics research, Popescu’s augmented reality research, and trauma surgery

guidance from Dr. Gerry Gomez, chief trauma surgeon at Eskenazi Health in Indianapolis. “All of this technology either exists or has been discussed in the industry, but nobody has put it together to create the experience,” Wachs says.

In current systems, both the surgeon mentor and mentee use headsets and laptops to view and communicate. “It works, but it’s not the most natural way for surgeons to work,” says Wachs. STAR will use augmented reality to give the mentor a projected patient on a table. The mentee will use a tablet over the patient as a window, with the mentor’s guidance appearing onscreen so his or her eyes are always on the patient. Future plans include using the new robot Taurus to reflect the physical actions of the mentor in the operating room, assisting, pointing things out and handing tools, just as an in-person mentor would.

Purchased from the Executive Vice President for Research and Partnership equipment grant and in collaboration with professors Howard Zelaznik, Bradley Duerstock, Eugenio Culurciello, Fabian

Winkler, C.S. George Lee, Cheryl Zhenyu Qian and Heather Towle Millard, Taurus’s impact won’t just be felt at home. It is also poised to revolutionize battlefield surgery, where time is of the essence and flying a patient to the nearest expert may be infeasible.

“This system means that surgeons can perform more specialized operations in the field because they can have access to realtime specialist guidance. Taurus is also much smaller than many surgical robots,

which makes it more practical for field hospitals,” he says.

Wachs’ team has received a grant from the U.S. Armed Forces to make STAR a reality. They expect to spend three years developing the technology before beginning tests.

Wach’s team also has recently published a journal paper in Surgery discussing this project: http://www.surgjournal.com/article/S0039-6060(15)01054-5/abstract

- Amira Yazback

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