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By Adam Sachs, CEO and co-founder, Vicarious Surgical

Surgical robotics witnessed an explosion of innovation in the 1990s and early 2000s, which brought to market new technologies that drastically changed the surgical landscape.

Leveraging laparoscopic technology, first-generation surgical robots were designed to reduce the trauma patients experience during open surgery by performing procedures using three to five smaller incision sites. Compared to open surgery, these minimally invasive techniques have substantial benefits for patients — the incidence of postoperative complication from incision site hernia is reduced from 15-20% to 1.2%, limiting the need for repeat surgery. Patient recovery times are shortened, surgical outcomes improved, and overall pain and discomfort is reduced, lessening the need for opioids.

The drawbacks of robotic laparoscopy

However, robotic laparoscopy also has significant drawbacks. The procedure is far more challenging to learn, plan, and execute than open surgery, as the surgeon needs to triangulate on the surgical area and kinematically design the robot’s motion for each procedure. Physicians need to undergo ongoing training to maintain skills, and even those with extensive experience face pitfalls. Additionally, small working areas, reduced forces, and confined motion greatly reduce surgical capabilities. Finally, laparoscopic robots are expensive — not only does the technology cost millions, but a dedicated operating room is required, which can go unused for extended periods.

These challenges have so far made surgical robots an economically infeasible option for most hospitals and ambulatory surgical centers. While the concept of a single-port robot has been explored to reduce surgical complexity, so far, larger incisional areas cause rates of postoperative complication that approach open surgery, low force and reduced motion fidelity limits capabilities, and cost still makes them a prohibitive solution for main-stream use.

As a result, even as technological landscapes have changed drastically since the first robotic surgery was performed over 35 years ago, the form and function of most surgical robots remains largely the same. Today, open surgery is still a common approach to complex surgery.

Enabling the next-generation of surgical robots

The past decade has seen technological advancements that could help solve existing challenges. More powerful computers with faster compute times, increasingly smaller sensors and actuators, the advent of 5G internet, advanced sensors, 3D printing, immersive reality, and more is rapidly changing what’s possible.

Vicarious Surgical, a surgical robotics startup based in Waltham, Mass., is leveraging cutting-edge technologies to develop a new generation of robots that isn’t constrained by 20th century designs. By going back to the drawing board and re-envisioning how today’s technology can bring benefit to patients and surgeons alike, Vicarious Surgical has received FDA Breakthrough Device designation for their innovative robot — the only surgical robot we believe to ever receive such a designation. Backed by investors including Bill Gates, Khosla Ventures, Eric Schmidt’s Innovation Endeavors, and Philip Liang’s E15 VC, the technology has the potential to solve the economic, ergonomic, and patient outcome limitations of previous generations. The result is a solution that leverages immersive reality and can exactly mimic the motion of human wrist, elbow and shoulder — effectively miniaturizing the surgeon and transplanting them inside the patient.

These innovations couldn’t come at a better time. The global gap between demand for surgical procedures and the available surgical workforce continues to widen, while simultaneously, the world population is both increasing and aging. Demand for a range of surgical procedures, from hip replacement to cataract surgery to hernia repair, will soar.

Next-generation surgical robots have the potential to democratize access to quality care in underserved communities across the country and around the globe and are a win-win for patients, surgeons and hospitals alike.

Watch the video above and visit Vicarious Surgical to learn more.