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Surgical robots: The kindness of strangers

January 20, 2012 | Hogan Keyser
surgical_robot.jpgJanuary 18, 2012 by The Economist Online -- RAVENS have a bad reputation. Medieval monks, who liked to give names to everything (even things that did not need them), came up with "an unkindness" as the collective noun for these corvids. Blake Hannaford and his colleagues at the University of Washington, in Seattle, however, hope to change the impression engendered by the word. They are about to release a flock of medical robots with wing-like arms, called Ravens, in the hope of stimulating innovation in the nascent field of robotic surgery.

Robot-assisted surgery today is dominated by the da Vinci Surgical System, a device that scales down a surgeon's hand movements in order to allow him to perform operations using tiny incisions. That leads to less tissue damage, and thus a quicker recovery for patients. Thousands of da Vincis have been made, and they are reckoned to be used in over 200,000 operations a year around the world, most commonly hysterectomies and prostate removals.

But the da Vinci is far from perfect. It is immobile and weighs more than half a tonne, which limits its deployability, and it costs $1.8m, which puts it beyond the reach of all but the richest institutions. It also uses proprietary software. Even if researchers keen to experiment with new robotic technologies and treatments could afford one, they cannot tinker with da Vinci's operating system.

None of that is true of the Raven. This device--originally developed for the American army by Dr Hannaford and Jacob Rosen of the University of California, Santa Cruz, as a prototype for robotic surgery on the battlefield--is compact, light and cheap (relatively speaking) at around $250,000. More importantly for academics, it is also the first surgical robot to use open-source software. Its Linux-based operating system allows anyone to modify and improve the original code, creating a way for researchers to experiment and collaborate.

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