A robot has successfully performed autonomous abdominal surgery on a pig.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins University reported the breakthrough on Wednesday in Science Daily News. The team has been programming its Smart Tissue Autonomous Robot (STAR) for years; in 2018, the robot performed semi-autonomous laparoscopic surgery (opens in new tab). This, however, is the first time the robot has successfully completed such an operation without "the guiding hand of a human."
Laparoscopic surgery is challenging even for human doctors as it seeks to, for instance, reconnect intestines without making large incisions in the stomach. In this case, the robot was reconnecting the ends of a pig's intestines.
After performing a similar surgery in 2016, but with a large incision and human guidance, the team updated the suturing tools and refined STAR's vision system, to provide it with better surgical field visualizations.
Laparoscopic surgery on soft tissue systems can be especially challenging, requiring instant adjustments in case something moves or the surgeon encounters an unexpected obstacle.
Robotics surgery is already commonplace around the world -- one estimate put the number of robotics-assisted surgeries at over 644,000 in 2017 (opens in new tab) -- but they're all assisted surgeries. Again, the Da Vinci robot (opens in new tab) does not work with a human surgeon counterpart, a truly remarkable advancement in the field.
"What makes the STAR special is that it is the first robotic system to plan, adapt, and execute a surgical plan in soft tissue with minimal human intervention," said senior author Axel Krieger, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Johns Hopkins' Whiting School of Engineering.
The benefit of STAR is not just its ability to adapt, but the precision and repeatability that comes with robotics. STAR is designed to not miss a suture or make a mistake. Krieger noted that the robot produced better results than humans performing the same procedure.
As for what the future of autonomous robot surgery might mean, Krieger told The A. James Clack School of engineering in 2018 that he could imagine a robot being sent out on a battlefield to perform trauma surgery.
This week Krieger and his team took a huge step toward that vision.