Skip to main content
Move the World.
surgical robot

Lead image by Wyss Institute at Harvard University

Meet mini-RCM, a tiny robotic surgery device that can assist doctors in performing surgeries.

Despite being small enough to fit in your pocket, mini-RCM has already proven its worth — performing better than manual tools during a mock surgery. Someday, mini-RCM could be the only doctor in the room.

The idea behind remote operations is to facilitate minimally invasive surgery using a small incision, camera, and surgical tools. A human surgeon guides a robot's motions from a distance. Robotic surgery is becoming more common in medicine, such as laparoscopic surgeries because telerobots help surgeons improve precision and control.

The process involves layering bonded materials and then laser cutting them so that they pop up into the desired shape.

This has increased patients' and doctor's safety. But there are still limitations. The robots can be difficult to operate, expensive, and huge — taking up most of the room.

Shrinking Surgical Robots

A collaboration between engineers Robert Wood of the Wyss Institute and Hiroyuki Suzuki of Sony found a solution: an origami-inspired miniature robot. 

The tiny robot, dubbed mini-RCM, is about the size of a tennis ball and weighs as much as a penny. But, in a mock-surgery, the small bot performed better than manual tools. 

The team created the mini-bot using a technique that Wood developed to simplify the creation of small things. Inspired by origami and children's pop-up books, the process involves layering bonded materials and then laser cutting them so that they pop up into the desired shape. 

In this case, mini-RCM is a parallelogram shape with three actuators that control movement in multiple directions. They then set the bot on a rail for lateral movements, like a train on its track. Finally, they added optical sensors to sense and correct small movement errors by the human operator, such as hand tremors, that can happen during surgery.

Testing The Bot's Robotic Surgery Performance

The team put mini-RCM through the paces in two tests designed to mimic robotic surgery conditions. They connected the bot to a Phantom Omni device, where the human user controls a pen that then triggers mini-RCM to respond. 

The first test — a microscopic tracing test — tasked the user to trace a square that was smaller than the tip of a ballpoint pen while looking through a microscope. They then compared the results with someone performing the same task by hand, with manual tools. The square traced with mini-RCM had 68% fewer errors. 

Then the team created a mock eye surgery — retinal vein cannulation — a demanding surgery where doctors insert a needle through the eye to inject therapeutic drugs into the retinal veins, at the back of the eyeball. They made a fake vein, only twice the width of a human hair. During the practice robotic surgery, while using the mini-RCM, they successfully hit the tube without causing damage.

The origami technique, Wood said in a statement, "is proving to be a valuable approach in a number of areas that require small yet sophisticated machines, and it was very satisfying to know that it has the potential to improve the safety and efficiency of surgeries to make them even less invasive for patients."

We'd love to hear from you! If you have a comment about this article or if you have a tip for a future Freethink story, please email us at [email protected].

Up Next

Dispatches
Robots Are Mass Producing Mini-Organs
Robots Are Mass Producing Mini-Organs
Dispatches
Robots Are Mass Producing Mini-Organs
Robots can make hundreds of tiny copies of your organs, allowing doctors to test many different treatments at the...

Robots can make hundreds of tiny copies of your organs, allowing doctors to test many different treatments at the same time.

Dispatches
A New Brain Surgery Robot Can Work Inside an MRI
A New Brain Surgery Robot Can Work Inside an MRI
Dispatches
A New Brain Surgery Robot Can Work Inside an MRI
Metal robots and electric motors don't normally play well with giant magnets.

Metal robots and electric motors don't normally play well with giant magnets.

Will Robots Steal Our Jobs?
Will Robots Steal Our Jobs?
Will Robots Steal Our Jobs?
Could exoskeletons help us do our jobs? Should we actually be afraid of robots taking our jobs? These are the...
By Mike Riggs

Could exoskeletons help us do our jobs? Should we actually be afraid of robots taking our jobs? These are the latest stories from the frontlines of the robotic world.

Medicine
Study: Blood Transfusions Can Slow Signs of Aging in Mice
Study: Blood Transfusions Can Slow Signs of Aging in Mice
Medicine
Study: Blood Transfusions Can Slow Signs of Aging in Mice
A new study shows that blood from fitter mice can reverse cognitive decline in sedentary mice.

A new study shows that blood from fitter mice can reverse cognitive decline in sedentary mice.

Biology of Addiction
We May Have Found a Drug to Curb Meth Addiction
drug to curb meth addiction
Biology of Addiction
We May Have Found a Drug to Curb Meth Addiction
Meth addiction is on the rise, so this team of researchers is working to develop the first FDA-approved medication to treat the use disorder.

Meth addiction is on the rise, so this team of researchers is working to develop the first FDA-approved medication to treat the use disorder.

Dispatches
AI Will Make You Smarter
AI Will Make You Smarter
Dispatches
AI Will Make You Smarter
Artificial intelligence will multiply your own intelligence, in ways that will surprise you.
By Terrence Sejnowski

Artificial intelligence will multiply your own intelligence, in ways that will surprise you.

Dispatches
Scientists Physically "Transplant" a Memory in Snails
Scientists Physically
Dispatches
Scientists Physically "Transplant" a Memory in Snails
The experiment breaks the conventional wisdom about what memories are made of.

The experiment breaks the conventional wisdom about what memories are made of.

The New Space Race
Preparing for Outer Space
Preparing for Outer Space
Watch Now
The New Space Race
Preparing for Outer Space
As the tech side of space travel advances, an annual gathering focuses on life off of planet earth.
Watch Now

Twenty years from now, humans could live in space permanently. As companies work feverishly to develop the tech needed for this galactic future, the New Worlds annual gathering brings together space lovers of all ages to brainstorm, fantasize and—more importantly—prepare for life off Earth.