Endoscope surgery robot uses air power for a steady touch

Surgeons can move their head to change the view inside a patient's body

The Emaro endoscope surgical robot is shown off at Tokyo Institute of Technology on July 31, 2015. The air-powered robot can hold endoscope cameras steady during surgery.

The Emaro endoscope surgical robot is shown off at Tokyo Institute of Technology on July 31, 2015. The air-powered robot can hold endoscope cameras steady during surgery.

Japanese researchers have developed an air-powered surgical assist robot that can change a camera view inside a patient's body with a mere nod by a surgeon.

Emaro is the first pneumatically driven robot in the world that can control an endoscope, a tubelike camera used to see inside the body, to assist surgeons in operations, according to the researchers from Tokyo Institute of Technology and Tokyo Medical and Dental University.

Emaro consists of a compressor, a control panel and a column that supports an arm that works the endoscope. The surgeon can control its movements in hands-free fashion while working forceps manipulators inside the body and viewing the Emaro camera feed on a large monitor.

Because it's powered by compressed air, the Emaro endoscope can move smoothly and precisely, and the researchers said it can improve the safety of surgery with laparoscopes, a type of endoscope. Laparoscopic surgeries involve the insertion of long fiber-optic tubes through small incisions in the abdomen. Such minimally invasive operations leave smaller scars and can promote better recovery.

The Emaro scope can move along four axes -- back and fourth, side to side, up and down and rotational.

At a demo at Tokyo Institute of Technology on Friday, a researcher put on a surgical cap fitted with a gyroscope over the forehead. When he moved his head, the machine would move the endoscope, including the camera and light at its tip. He also used foot switches to send directional controls to the device, and to put it into manual control mode.

Emaro can assist with surgeries such as operations for lung disease as well as gastric and prostate cancer. It could replace human endoscope operators, which could be especially useful in areas that lack such skilled workers.

"The camera is fixed and won't shake like when it's held by a person, which can make the doctor feel sick," said Kenji Kawashima, a professor at Tokyo Medical and Dental University who co-developed the system.

Kawashima said he and his collaborators wanted to create Emaro because Intuitive Surgical's da Vinci robot surgical system, which has been at the center of a boom in robot surgery in recent years, does not provide surgeons with enough force feedback during an operation. Emaro is the first step in creating such a more sensitive surgical tool with haptic feedback, he added.

Air-powered servos have been used in many robots in Japan, from industrial robot platforms to lifelike android robots designed to act as receptionists. They can create smooth motion in robots but require bulky air compressors.

The Emaro robot will be launched in August in Japan, marketed to hospitals and universities, and will be priced around ¥15 million (US$120,700). A next-generation model is planned for overseas markets around 2017 or 2018.

Tim Hornyak covers Japan and emerging technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Tim on Twitter at @robotopia.

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