Emerging in the 1980s, the first robots in the medical field provided surgical assistance via robotic arm technologies. Over the years, artificial intelligence (AI)–enabled computer vision and data analytics have transformed medical robots, expanding their capabilities into many other areas of healthcare.
Robots are now used not only in the operating room but also in clinical settings to support healthcare workers and enhance patient care. For example, hospitals and clinics are deploying robots for a much wider range of tasks to help reduce exposure to pathogens during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The use of robotics and automation also extends to research laboratories where they are used to automate manual, repetitive, and high-volume tasks so technicians and scientists can focus their attention on more strategic tasks that make discoveries happen faster.
Streamlined workflows and risk reduction provided by medical robotics offer value in many areas. For example, robots can clean and prep patient rooms independently, helping limit person-to-person contact in infectious disease wards. Robots with AI-enabled medicine identifier software reduce the time it takes to identify, match, and distribute medicine to patients in hospitals.
As technologies evolve, robots will function more autonomously, eventually performing certain tasks entirely on their own. As a result, doctors, nurses, and other healthcare workers will be able to spend more time providing direct patient care.
Benefits of Robotics in Healthcare
Using robotics in the medical field enables a high level of patient care, efficient processes in clinical settings, and a safe environment for patients and healthcare workers.
High-Quality Patient Care
Medical robots support minimally invasive procedures, customized and frequent monitoring for patients with chronic diseases, intelligent therapeutics, and social engagement for elderly patients. In addition, as robots alleviate workloads, nurses and other caregivers can offer patients more empathy and human interaction, which can promote long-term well-being.
Streamlined Clinical Workflows
Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) simplify routine tasks, reduce the physical demands on human workers, and ensure more consistent processes. These robots can address staffing shortages and challenges by keeping track of inventory and placing timely orders to help make sure supplies, equipment, and medication are in stock where they are needed. Cleaning and disinfection AMRs enable hospital rooms to be sanitized and ready for incoming patients quickly, allowing workers to focus on patient-centric, value-driven work.
Safe Work Environment
To help keep healthcare workers safe, AMRs are used to transport supplies and linens in hospitals where pathogen exposure is a risk. Cleaning and disinfection robots limit pathogen exposure while helping reduce hospital acquired infections (HAIs)—and hundreds of healthcare facilities are already using them1. Social robots, a type of AMR, also help with heavy lifting, such as moving beds or patients, which reduces physical strain on healthcare workers.
As motion control technologies have advanced, surgical-assistance robots have become more precise. These robots help surgeons achieve new levels of speed and accuracy while performing complex operations with AI- and computer vision‒capable technologies. Some surgical robots may even be able to complete tasks autonomously, allowing surgeons to oversee procedures from a console.
Surgeries performed with robotics assistance fall into two main categories:
- Minimally invasive surgeries for the torso. These include robotic hysterectomy, robotic prostatectomy, bariatric surgery, and other procedures primarily focused on soft tissues. After insertion through a small incision, these robots lock themselves into place, creating a stable platform from which to perform surgeries via remote control. Open surgery using large incisions was once the norm for most internal procedures. Recovery times were much longer, and the potential for infection and other complications was greater. Working manually through a button-sized incision is extremely difficult, even for an experienced surgeon. Surgical robots make these procedures easy and accurate, with a goal to reduce infections and other complications.
- Orthopedic surgeries. Devices can be preprogrammed to perform common orthopedic surgeries, such as knee and hip replacements. Combining smart robotic arms, 3D imaging, and data analytics, these robots enable more predictable results by employing spatially defined boundaries to assist the surgeon. AI modeling enables robots to be trained in specific orthopedic surgeries, with precise direction for where to go and how to perform the procedures.
The ability to share a video feed from the operating room to other locations—near or far—allows surgeons to benefit from consultations with other specialists in their field. As a result, patients have the best surgeons involved in their procedures.
The field of surgical robotics is evolving to make greater use of AI. Computer vision enables surgical robots to differentiate between types of tissue within their field of view. For example, surgical robots now have the ability to help surgeons avoid nerves and muscles during procedures2. High-definition 3D computer vision can provide surgeons with detailed information and enhanced performance during procedures. Eventually, robots will be able to take over small subprocedures, such as suturing or other defined tasks, under the watchful gaze of the surgeon.
Robotics also plays a key role in surgeon education. Simulation platforms use AI and virtual reality to provide surgical robotics training. Within the virtual environment, surgeons can practice procedures and hone skills using robotics controls.
Modular robots enhance other systems and can be configured to perform multiple functions. In healthcare, these include therapeutic exoskeleton robots and prosthetic robotic arms and legs.
Therapeutic robots can help with rehabilitation after strokes, paralysis, or traumatic brain injuries or with impairments caused by multiple sclerosis. A wheelchair-mounted robotic arm currently being developed by Intel and Accenture aims to assist patients with spinal injuries in performing daily tasks. When robots are equipped with AI and depth cameras, they can monitor a patient’s form as they go through prescribed exercises, measuring degrees of motion in different positions and tracking progress more precisely than the human eye. They can also interact with patients to provide coaching and encouragement.
Autonomous Mobile Robots
Healthcare organizations often rely on AMRs because of their ability to assist with critical needs such as disinfection, telepresence, and delivery of medication and medical supplies, creating safe environments while freeing up staff to spend more time with patients. When equipped with light detection and ranging (LiDAR) systems, visual compute, or mapping capabilities, AMRs can self-navigate to patients in exam or hospital rooms, allowing clinicians to interact from afar. If an AMR is controlled by a remote specialist or other worker, it can accompany doctors as they make hospital rounds, allowing a specialist to contribute via an on-screen consultation regarding patient diagnostics and care.
Some robots can assist professionals before a patient is checked in. For example, one autonomous robot in Mexico, developed by start-up Roomie, is being used to help medical staff with high-risk COVID-19 patients. Named RoomieBot, it triages patients by taking their temperature, blood oxygen level, and medical history when they arrive at the hospital. RoomieBot uses Intel-based technology, including AI algorithms that run on the Intel® Movidius™ Vision Processing Unit (VPU), 8th Gen Intel® NUCs, and Intel® RealSense™ cameras.
Other types of AMRs that are used in healthcare include service robots and social robots.
Service robots relieve the daily burden on healthcare workers by handling routine logistical tasks. Many of these robots function autonomously and can send a report when they complete a task. These robots set up patient rooms, track supplies and file purchase orders, restock medical supply cabinets, and transport bed linens to and from laundry facilities. Having some routine tasks performed by service robots gives healthcare workers more time to focus on immediate patient needs and can help with increasing job satisfaction. The TUG Robot by Aethon is a service robot doing just that. TUG can navigate complex and changing environments to safely deliver linens to nursing units on both a scheduled and on-demand basis.
Service robots can also help with cleaning and disinfection. These AMRs may use ultraviolet (UV) light, hydrogen peroxide vapors, or air filtration to help reduce infection and to sanitize reachable places in a uniform way. An autonomous mobile robot prototype developed by the start-up Akara is being tested for one of these routine yet essential tasks: disinfecting contaminated surfaces using UV light. Its goal is to help hospitals sanitize rooms and equipment, aiding in the fight against COVID-19.
Social robots interact directly with humans. These “friendly” robots can be used in long-term care environments to provide social interaction and monitoring. They may encourage patients to comply with treatment regimens or provide cognitive engagement, helping to keep patients alert and positive. They can also be used to offer directions to visitors and patients inside the hospital environment. In general, social robots help reduce caregiver workloads and improve patients’ emotional well-being.
Intel® Technologies for Medical Robots
Intel® technologies enable healthcare robotics solutions among a diverse ecosystem of hardware manufacturers and software providers. Intel offers a wide range of compute technologies with support for computer vision to meet the design needs of high-performance surgical-assistance technologies; mobile delivery and autonomous UV disinfection robots; and robots that enable better patient monitoring, specialist consultation, enhanced social engagement, and more.
The Future of Robotics in the Medical Field
As machine learning, data analytics, computer vision, and other technologies advance, medical robotics will evolve to complete tasks autonomously and more efficiently and accurately.
Intel is working in collaboration with technology providers and researchers to explore the next generation of robotics solutions. By providing technology and research support, Intel is helping drive the discovery of new applications for AI and IoT technologies within the field of medical robotics. These contributions support ongoing innovations that increase automation, drive efficiencies, and solve some of the greatest healthcare challenges.
The Future of Robotics and Healthcare
Health robotics will continue to evolve alongside advancements in machine learning, data analytics, computer vision, and other technologies. Robots of all types will continue to evolve to complete tasks autonomously, efficiently, and accurately.
Intel is working in collaboration with technology providers and researchers to explore the next generation of robotics solutions. For example, Intel Labs China is partnering with the Suzhou Collaborative Innovation Medical Robot Research Institute to establish a medical robotics incubator for startups. Providing technology and research support, Intel is aiding the discovery of new applications for AI and IoT technologies within the field of medical robotics. These contributions support ongoing innovations that increase automation, drive efficiencies, and solve some of the greatest healthcare challenges.