The idea of having your eyes operated on is a pretty terrifying proposal at the best of times, but throw robot surgeons into the mix and it suddenly feels very James Bond. But robot optical surgery is now a very real possibility thanks to the University of Oxford in the UK.
For the first time a robot has passed clinical trials to perform highly delicate retinal surgery, meaning it could soon become a fixture in hospital wards. The robot, named R2D2 (yes, really) outperformed its human counterparts in the control group.
The reason that a robot is proving so effective in this field is the microscopic level of movement needed to perform the surgery, well outside the capabilities of even the most competent surgeon.
Talking to the BBC about the Robotic Retinal Dissection Device (R2D2), the program’s director Dr Robert MacLaren said: “Current technology with laser scanners and microscopes allows us to monitor retinal diseases at the microscopic level, but the things we see are beyond the physiological limit of what the human hand can operate on.
"With a robotic system, we open up a whole new chapter of eye operations that currently cannot be performed.”
Slow and steady
In order to operate on a retina, an incision 10 microns deep at the back of the eye is necessary. For reference, a human hair averages at about 60 microns. As precise as human surgeons are, even the pulse of their heart is enough to move their hand more than 10 microns.
The clinical trial took the form of 12 retina membrane removal operations, 6 by human surgeons, 6 by R2D2. In the group operated on by the human surgeons, there were five micro-hemorrhages (minor bleeds) and two retinal touches, which we feel a bit queasy just writing. In comparison, R2D2 only had two micro-hemorrhages and one retinal touch.
If it helps set your mind at ease, the robot is still controlled by a human surgeon so it isn’t deciding where and when to cut, yet.