(UR) Washington, D.C. — On Wednesday, the journal Science Translational Medicine published the work of a group of researchers at the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., who’ve developed technology that would allow robots to perform surgery independently and without the constant supervision of a human surgeon.

The device — a lightweight robotic arm with a suturing tool attached — is called STAR, or the Smart Tissue Autonomous Robot. Unlike other devices, such as the da Vinci Surgical System, which operate as extensions of a surgeon’s hand, STAR is self-controlled and doesn’t need to be guided.

“It’s a really nice piece of work,” Ken Goldberg, director of UC Berkeley’s Center for Automation and Learning for Medical Robotics, told WIRED. “They’ve managed to push the envelope.”

As a proof of concept, the researchers had STAR suture together bowel segments in living pigs. The same surgery was performed by both human surgeons alone and surgeons assisted by robotics. When all the data was calculated, the team found that, on average, STAR’s suturing was more accurate than that of the other two methods.

“If you want to throw in 2o stitches, it is not enough that a human being does 19 out of 20 well,” Dr. Peter Kim, a member of the team, told BBC. “You have to do all 20 of them well to have a good outcome. This machine will consistently throw in 20 perfect sutures.”

STAR’s robotic arm is just the hardware. The real breakthrough behind the device is the 3D light field camera it employs that allows STAR to “read” fluorescent markers injected into soft tissue — the slippery nature of which has proved problematic for earlier attempts at fully automated surgical systems.

Even with such an advancement, however, STAR is far from infallible. It still has to be preprogrammed to perform its tasks. And in the trial, researchers had to supervise or make adjustments around 40 percent of the time.

But, as Dr. Kim noted, “These are minor adjustments, very much like when you see your little baby beginning to walk. We were a little nervous about it to make sure it does it the right way.”

Christopher Prentice, CEO of Mazor Robotics — a company that produces a robotic system which can alert surgeons as to where they should insert bone screws into the spine — seems to think any flaws with STAR are simply part of a natural progression of the technology.

“The key to robotics in surgery is to add value, and I believe it’ll be incremental value,” he told WIRED. “It’s not someone who swoops in.”

The team thinks STAR could be ready for human trials in as little as a two years, and that robotic systems could be performing routine operations independently of living surgeons in the very near future.


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