A robot capable of locating tiny pieces of metal within flesh, and guiding a needle to its exact location has been developed by bio engineers at the Duke University.
The researchers believe that, in future, similar robots may not only help treat shrapnel injuries on the battlefield, but also be used for medical procedures like placing and removing radioactive "seeds" used in the treatment of prostate and other cancers.
In their latest experiments, the engineers started with a rudimentary tabletop robot whose "eyes" are a novel 3-D ultrasound technology. An artificial intelligence program served as the robot's "brain" by taking the real-time 3-D information, processing it and giving the robot specific commands to perform.
In their simulations, the researchers used tiny pieces of needle because, like shrapnel, they are subject to magnetism.
"We attached an electromagnet to our 3-D probe, which caused the shrapnel to vibrate just enough that its motion could be detected. Once the shrapnel's coordinates were established by the computer, it successfully guided a needle to the site of the shrapnel," said A.J. Rogers, who just completed an undergraduate degree in bioengineering at Duke.
The researchers said that by proving that the robot can guide a needle to an exact location, it would simply be a matter of replacing the needle probe with a tiny tool, such as a grabber.
A research article on the study has been published online in the journal IEEE Transactions on Ultrasonics, Ferroelectrics and Frequency Control.
The positive results achieved by the researchers using a rudimentary robot and a basic artificial intelligence program have encouraged them to believe that simple and reasonably safe procedures will become routine in the near future as robot and artificial intelligence technology improves.
"We showed that in principle, the system works. It can be very difficult using conventional means to detect small pieces of shrapnel, especially in the field. The military has an extensive program of exploring the use of surgical robots in the field, and this advance could play a role," said Stephen Smith, director of the Duke University Ultrasound Transducer Group and senior member of the research team.
In addition to its applications recovering the radioactive seeds used in treating prostate cancer, Smith said the system could also prove useful in removing foreign, metallic objects from the eye.
The robot used in these experiments is a tabletop version capable of moving in three axes. For the next series of tests, the Duke researchers plan to use a robotic arm with six-axis capability.