How Robotic Surgery Will Work

Supervisory-controlled Robotic Surgery Systems

Dr. Scott J. Boley demonstrates a robotic surgery system at the Montefiore Institute for Minimally Invasive Surgery in New York City.
Dr. Scott J. Boley demonstrates a robotic surgery system at the Montefiore Institute for Minimally Invasive Surgery in New York City.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Of the three kinds of robotic surgery, supervisory-controlled systems are the most automated. But that doesn't mean these robots can perform surgery without any human guidance. In fact, surgeons must do extensive prep work with surgery patients before the robot can operate.

That's because supervisory-controlled systems follow a specific set of instructions when performing a surgery. The human surgeon must input data into the robot, which then initiates a series of controlled motions and completes the surgery. There's no room for error -- these robots can't make adjustments in real time if something goes wrong. Surgeons must watch over the robot's actions and be ready to intervene if something doesn't go as planned.

The reason surgeons might want to use such a system is that they can be very precise, which in turn can mean reduced trauma for the patient and a shorter recovery period. One common use for these robots is in hip and knee replacement­ procedures. The robot's job is to drill existing bone so that an implant fits snugly into the new joint.

Because no two people have the exact same body structure, it's impossible to have a standard program for the robot to follow. That means surgeons must map the patient's body thoroughly so that the robot moves in the right way. They do this in a three-step process called planning, registration and navigation [source: Brown University].

In the planning stage, surgeons take images of the patient's body to determine the right surgical approach. Common imaging methods include computer tomography (CT) scans, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, ultrasonography, fluoroscopy and X-ray scans. For some procedures, surgeons may have to place pins into the bones of the patient to act as markers or navigation points for the computer. Once the surgeon has imaged the patient, he or she must determine the surgical pathway the robot will take.

The surgeon must tell the robot what the proper surgical pathway is. The robot can't make these decisions on its own. Once the surgeon programs the robot, it can follow instructions exactly.

The next step is registration. In this phase, the surgeon finds the points on the patient's body that correspond to the images created during the planning phase. The surgeon must match the points exactly in order for the robot to complete the surgery without error.

The final phase is navigation. This involves the actual surgery. The surgeon must first position the robot and the patient so that every movement the robot makes corresponds with the information in its programmed path. Once everyone is ready, the surgeon activates the robot, which carries out its instructions.

­The next type of robot can only act under the direction of a human surgeon. Let's go to the next section and learn about the da Vinci Surgical System.