Collaborative robots will shape the future of medicine
Helpful supporters in medical applications
Whether it is rising life expectancy, the growing shortage of skilled labour or exploding costs – the healthcare system is facing a number of great challenges. One of the keys to solving many of these problems is the rapid advance of medical technology. What sounded like science fiction just a few, short years ago is now a reality. Robots are suitable to support a range of medical applications that can be broken down into three categories. They can be used, for example, to carry heavy loads, such as linear accelerators or X-ray machines. Other possible applications include processes that require a high degree of precision, like accurately positioning an instrument. This also includes processes that take a long time and require sustained high precision, such as surgeries. A third scenario is the continuous repetition of tasks where a robot does the same thing over a long period of time. The advantages of using robots as parts of medical products are obvious. Patients benefit from increased safety and precision of treatment. Clinics increase quality through reproducible results according to demand and can thus increase their productivity. Collaborative-sensitive robots are also becoming increasingly important in applications where the smaller, sensitive robots can assist doctors and therapists hand in hand during treatment. All sides can ideally complement each other and contribute their respective strengths. The physician or therapist plans, controls and monitors, and the robot takes over the strenuous and tiring activities that require special precision and, above all, sensitivity.
Various applications become possible
There are already a number of diverse applications that provide a glimpse into how these sensitive robots will be used as part of medical products going into the future. In rehabilitation, for example, a sensitive robot system is being used to move the legs of bedridden patients for training purposes. Another example is MURAB, a research project funded by the EU. In breast cancer diagnostics, MURAB uses a robot-controlled ultrasound scanner to increase the precision and effectiveness of the biopsy and help make more targeted use of expensive MRI images. Currently on its way to market maturity, CARLO® – an acronym for Cold Ablation, Robot-guided Laser Osteotomes – is a medical product from the Swiss start-up AOT AG. CARLO® is intended to radically improve the results of bone surgery by replacing mechanical cutting instruments with non-contact “cold” laser photo ablation and robotics.
One robot, countless opportunities
What do all of these application examples have in common? “The sensitive robot that is integrated into these applications is the LBR Med from KUKA, which stands for Lightweight Robot Medicine,” explains Axel Weber, KUKA Vice President Medical Robotics. What is so special about the LBR Med? It is the only robot component that has been certified according to CB Scheme process and can therefore be easily incorporated into a medical product by medical technology companies – a unique selling point. Because its design was based on the sensitive, seven-axis LBR iiwa, the LBR Med already has sensitivity integrated into it. In the past, manufacturers had to develop this sensitivity for the robots they used for their products themselves, so they could be operated in the immediate vicinity of the patient. Efforts like these are now largely eliminated. “The LBR Med has installed force torque sensors in all seven axes, which makes it sensitive and safe. When there is even a little, unplanned contact, it remains still and interrupts its tasks. This sensitivity can also be used to operate the system intuitively and manually,” Axel Weber says. In 2018, the LBR Med was awarded with the renowned Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Robotics Award (IERA). The cobot impressed the international jury with its innovative technology and great market significance for the medical sector.
Collaborative and sensitive robots are already poised for a promising future in the medical sector. “They will be used in an increasing number of areas. Surgical and therapeutic applications remain important. Here, however, small, compact, precise and sensitive robots will become more and more important – of course, the sensitive LBR robot is predestined for this.” Axel Weber also sees artificial intelligence as an important development that can be used to better plant patient care in the future. “Once this technology matures, robot systems will become even more helpful,” Weber says. Nevertheless, the use of robotic systems still depends on the acceptance of doctors and patients. “Young doctors are especially willing to work with such systems,” he explains. Patients, however, need to be further informed and educated. Acceptance here strongly depends on the application. The art of the present, therefore, consists of combining tradition and modernity and gaining acceptance in society by achieving further successes.
Image source: Fraunhofer IPA, Mannheim
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