Close contact with people: service robots in medicine and nursing

31 January 2014

AUTOMATICA, the international trade fair for automation and mechatronics, is providing professional service robotics with its own platform and presenting the latest developments and concrete applications in Munich, Germany, from 3-6 June 2014.

Service robotics in medicine and nursing has pioneering significance. Service robots are being used successfully in an increasing number of areas including surgery, nursing, rehabilitation, logistics and the organisation of hospitals. With sales of $1.5 billion in 2012, medical robots have a 44% share of the total volume of professional service robotics.

Thanks to movement detection, navigation, learning ability and artificial intelligence, man and machine are creating a perfect team increasingly often. Contrary to conventional, minimally invasive surgery, which has been used for gall bladder and appendix operations for some time, much more complex operations can be carried out safely using da Vinci surgery robots.

"In urology, we can remove complex kidney tumours, organ-saving with less pain and discharge patients earlier," said Dr Ahmed Magheli, chief urology physician at Charité Berlin. "This above all concerns radical prostate operations, which require an especially delicate technique, because continence and potency are endangered."

While surgeons previously had to perform up to 200 laparoscopic interventions to achieve consistently good results, they can successfully complete the operations a lot faster today thanks to da Vinci.

"Da Vinci has revolutionised minimally invasive prostate surgery and makes it accessible to the general public," added Magheli.

According to Professor Gerd Hirzinger, former director of the Institute for Robotics and Mechatronics of the German Centre for Air and Space Travel (DLR), the robots continually remain under control of the doctor during surgery.

"However, a robot arm can insert a biopsy needle right on target in a brain tumour sized only a few millimetres without shaking and possibly more precisely than a surgeon's hand," he said.

KUKA robots are active very close to humans and help to make diagnoses as well as plan and administer treatment. Robots position patients, conduct concept studies into bone surgery and contribute with robot-supported rehabilitation after strokes to improve the quality of life of people in need of help.

"With key technologies in the area of safety, simple operating concepts and autonomous navigation, robots are being transformed into clever assistants for people," stated Michael Otto, head of medical robotics at KUKA Laboratories.

Service robotics in modern hospital logistics and rehabilitation

Service robots provide valuable logistics services in modern hospitals such as Niguarda Ca' Granda in Milan. Operating completely autonomously, 32 driverless transport vehicles bring meals to the wards, pick up laundry, dispose of waste, retrieve drugs from pharmaceutical stock management, procure medical accessories and perform sterilisations, allowing the hospital's more than 4,100 specialists to use their time to create added value and take better care of patients.

"Flexible, configurable and autonomous service robotics is essential for this high degree of automation," explained Nicola Tomatis, CEO of BlueBotics SA and inventor of Autonomous Navigation Technology (ANT). "Independent functioning in a human environment requires intelligent navigating, which does not require additional infrastructure and consequently can be used economically on a wide range."

Service robots are also achieving economic success in rehabilitation.

"Insights into the neuroplasticity of the central nervous system and function-oriented learning demonstrate that patients with neurological movement disorders can relearn through intensive training," said Dr Gery Colombo, co-founder and CEO of automated therapy equipment specialist Hocoma.

The new module FreeD has taken the lead. It supplements the Lokomats with additional degrees of freedom and additionally trains motoric aspects for the later rehabilitation phase.

"The new Cochrane Review, an evidence-based meta-analysis, proves that stroke patients who receive robot-supported walking training combined with physiotherapy are much more likely to learn to walk independently again than those who train conventionally," said Colombo.

Human-robot interaction is decisive

"The future challenges for service robots are in their ability to communicate and their close interaction with people," said Dr Roko Tschakarow, division manager for mobile gripping systems at SCHUNK.

Service robots are especially interesting in areas where they work more precisely than patients. In collaboration with Italian company Loccioni, SCHUNK has produced a robot designed to operate in a hospital pharmacy whose grippers mix toxic substances for tumour therapy, improving quality demonstrably.

Service robotics highlight of AUTOMATICA 2014

AUTOMATICA 2014 is presenting concrete applications in service robotics in a separate exhibition area in Hall A4. The product offers will be supplemented by scientific talks and panel discussions at the AUTOMATICA Forum in Hall B5.



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