Robots may be part of future surgery staff


With a little more practice, a robot researchers are working with might be able to score a job at the laundromat. However, the robot, known as the PR2, is actually folding towels in the name of science.

"Folding a towel is very difficult for a robot because clothing articles are deformable. So they can have an infinite number of different configurations," said Ziang Xie from the University of California.

Xie is a graduate student at the University of California's robot learning lab. He says the task requires the robots' camera eyes to be able to identify shapes. The algorithms in its software then prioritize choices, like which corner to grab.

"It does background subtraction. It reasons, 'Oh, what's the biggest blob? What's the furthest corner?'" said Xie.

And that ability to perform a pre-set task, while adjusting to an unpredictable environment could someday prove lifesaving.

For the last several years, doctors have been using robotic surgical systems like the Da Vinci, to perform some delicate procedures more quickly and accurately. And while the surgeon currently directs the robot's moves from a control center, the robots of the future may think more for themselves.

"What we're looking at is trying to automate some parts of the procedure. So not the entire procedure, but some of the more tedious, repetitive tasks," said Pieter Abbeel, Ph.D., from University of California.

Project director Abbeel says placing or removing sutures could be just one example. To help find out what's possible, his lab has been chosen as one of seven centers to receive a new research robot called "The Raven." Unlike the commercial Da Vinci, the Raven is small and designed to be reprogrammed.

"And the big difference for researchers then is their design is fully open. Anybody has access to the design files, anyone has access to the software running them, so we can reprogram these robots whichever way we like," said Abbeel.

And since The Raven robots are identical, researchers from the seven different universities will be able to share data and expertise gleaned from their specific programs.

"What we would like to do is come up with a framework that can to allow robots, any robots, not just Ravens or PR2s, but any robots to think about deformable objects and manipulate them in a reliable way," said Abbeel.

Whether that's folding towels or ultimately clamping blood vessels, he expects the robots' skill level to accelerate as the research program advances.

The Raven program was started by researchers at the University of Washington and U.C. Santa Cruz. Funding is being provided by the National Science Foundation.

Written and produced by Tim Didion

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