Robot surgeon does superhuman job on sutures

Image: Robot surgeon at work
Surgeons Azad Shademan and Ryan Decker supervise autonomous bowel surgery performed on a piglet by the Smart Tissue Autonomous Robot. (Credit: Axel Krieger)

Researchers have programmed a robot to sew up intestines autonomously, with more precision than the typical human surgeon achieves. Right now, the intestines happen to be inside pigs, but some aspects of the technology could soon be used on humans.

“Within the next couple of years, I expect that as surgical tools become smarter, it will inform and work with surgeons in supporting better outcomes,” Peter Kim, a researcher at the Children’s National Health System in Washington, D.C., told reporters this week.

Kim and his colleagues describe their surgical system – known as the Smart Tissue Autonomous Robot, or STAR – in a paper published online today by Science Translational Medicine.

Surgical robots have been around for a long time, but so far they’ve been used as tools rather than taking on medical tasks on their own. The surgeon typically manipulates the robot’s instruments in real time, in some cases guided by a video feed.

STAR combines a number of technologies that are already in use, including the KUKA robotic arm, and adds a layer of programming that translates near-infrared imagery of the surgical site into a course of action. When the human surgeon presses a button, the STAR robot executes a program to stitch up a break in the intestines.

Kim calls the machine a “very advanced, smart sewing machine.”

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributor to GeekWire and Universe Today, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," past president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

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