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At the cutting edge of robotic surgery

"This PolyU engineering innovation will help turn a new page in minimally invasive surgery, thus enhancing the well-being of patients."

Not many people would associate space exploration and Transformers toys with the operating theatre of a hospital. Yet these worlds have recently come together to produce a ground-breaking new surgical tool — the Novel Surgical Robotic System (NSRS).

Although robotic surgical systems have been in use since the 2000s, this innovative tool is different.

Unlike the bulky robotic system most often used today, the NSRS is highly portable and can be easily mounted on a surgical table. It also has a 3D camera, three or more robotic arms that can take different surgical tools, and a haptic feedback system. Most importantly, with the NSRS only one incision or even none for natural orifice surgery instead of many needs to be made when operating on a patient, thereby reducing the risk of trauma.

A diverse set of skills came together to devise this ingenious system. The surgical team that oversaw its architectural design and functionalities was led by Prof. Yeung Chung-kwong of the Department of Surgery at the University of Hong Kong. On the engineering side, the technical know-how was contributed by the team of space exploration specialists at PolyU’s Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering headed by Prof. Yung Kai-leung. Projects on which they have worked include the European Space Agency’s Mars Express mission and China’s Chang’e 3 lunar exploration mission.

Using their expertise in miniaturising complex machinery, the PolyU team fitted the NSRS with surgical robotic arms driven by highly precise yet extremely strong internal micro-motors. Their inspiration? The same articulated Transformers toys that children play with, a concept that was used to keep the robotic arms small in size as they enter the body then capable of bring reassembled into different shapes, depending on the surgical procedure.

The development of NSRS is indeed one obvious example of applying space technologies. Describing the team’s breakthrough, Prof. Yung put it, "This PolyU engineering innovation will help turn a new page in minimally invasive surgery, thus enhancing the well-being of patients."

Already, the surgical team has used the new technology in animal trials, including one operation in which the gall bladder of a live pig was removed in less than an hour. Additional trials involving more complex procedures on animals and human cadavers will be performed soon and eventually on live human patients for a variety of abdominal and pelvic surgical operations.

Revolutionary surgical robotic system – Engineering innovation by PolyU

Led by Prof. Yung Kai-leung, Associate Head of PolyU’s Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, a team of engineers experienced in making precision space implements was invited by surgeons from the University of Hong Kong to jointly develop a revolutionary surgical robotic system. This engineering innovation with tactile feedback capable of single incision or natural orifice surgery allows surgeons to operate with high precision while being aware of the force applied to their patients. The surgical robotic system is a highly portable platform that can be mounted on any standard surgical table. It features a 3D camera and can be fitted with three or more surgical robotic arms that take different tools. The arms of this engineering innovation are capable of up to 10 angles of rotation, and are driven by internal micro-motors. Currently there is only one dominant surgical robotic system on the market. This engineering innovation is expensive and has many limitations, including the need for multiple incisions, lack of haptic (force or tactile sensation) feedback, and bulkiness. Furthermore, it is not designed for natural orifice (NOTES, or incision-less) robotic surgery. By contrast NSRS, the new robotic system, can be inserted through a single, small incision or even a natural orifice and expanded inside the human body to perform various surgical operations. The development of surgical robotic system is one obvious example of applying space technologies and we are delighted to note that this PolyU engineering innovation will help turn a new page in minimally invasive surgery, thus enhancing the well-being of patients.