A man lies comatose on an operating table. The enormous spider that hangs above him has plunged four appendages into his belly. The spider, made of white steel, probes around inside the man's abdomen then withdraws one of its arms. Held in the machine's claw is a neatly sealed bag containing a scrap of bloody tissue.
This is a da Vinci robot. It has allowed a surgeon, sitting at a control desk, to remove the patient's prostate gland in a manner that has several advantages over conventional methods.
Yet the future of robotic surgery may lie not only with these hulking beasts but also with devices at the other end of the size spectrum.
The surgeons of tomorrow will include tiny robots that enter our bodies and do their work from the inside, with no need to open patients up or knock them out.
While nanobots that swim through the blood are still in the realm of fantasy, several groups are developing devices a few millimetres in size. The first generation of "mini-medibots" may infiltrate our bodies through our ears, eyes and lungs, to deliver drugs, take tissue samples or install medical devices.
The engineering challenges are formidable, including developing new methods of propulsion and power supply. Nevertheless, the first prototypes are already being tested in animals and could move into tests on people in the not-too-distant future. "It's not impossible to think of this happening in five years," says Brad Nelson, a roboticist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EHT) in Zurich. "I'm convinced it's going to get there."
From New Scientist
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