This New Surgical Robot Can Drill into Human Skulls with Ease

Shelby Rogers

While we're still decades away from comfortably allowing robots to lead surgery, robotic tools are gaining more prominence in the medical fields. These robots traditionally are still controlled by a doctor working via a computer system. However, one new study published in Science Robotics reports the world's first ever robot-assisted cochlear implant surgery.

surgical robot

[Image Source: IGT Artorg via YouTube]

The development team comes from the University of Bern in Switzerland's ARTORG Center for Biomedical Engineering Research. Lead study author Stefan Weber told Popular Science that it took them over eight years to perfect the robot.

That timeline might seem a bit long when one compares its development to other robots in the field. However, this robot has to work in a highly complex environment doing a very specific and pointed task. Cochlear implant surgeries help restore hearing in patients with partial function of their cochlear nerve. Conventional methods require surgeons to open up a patient's skull and work within an area the size of a Euro coin. It's only after this opening has been made that the hearing device's electrode can be implanted.

surgical robot

[Image Source: IGT Artorg via YouTube]

"Humans are operating at the limits of their skill-sets, haptically and visually," Weber said. "But if it's designed right, a robotic system can operate at any resolution—whether it's a millimeter you need or a tenth of a millimeter."

The robot allows for drilling an even more narrow tunnel into the inner ear's temporal bone. The tunnel will snugly fit the electrode, and a smaller hole means less time a patient will have to recover from surgery. Most cochlear implant surgeries occur in small children, so reducing 'down time' will more than likely lead to happier patients.

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The video below from 2013 shows displays some close-up footage of testing out and fine-tuning the custom-built robotics:

The robot assisted in its first surgery on a 51-year-old female patient last year. It's been used three times since then, and all surgeries were considered successes. The patients are still being monitored to evaluate their overall hearing experience.

Weber said the process is far from being fully automated. However, he wants to continue to "optimize" the process. The team is working on developing a robot to finalize the implantation and thread the electrode into the inner ear.

"Let’s say structures that are rather small, in the brain or deeper inside the skull base," he said. "We’re interested to see if we can expand it in the future."

SEE ALSO: Can Humans and Robots Work Side by Side in Harmony?

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