Raven IV

Surgeons Mika Sinana (left) and Tom Lendvay (right), at the University of Washington, teleoperate a Raven IV located at UC Santa Cruz.

Okay, it’s not quite for the masses…yet. It still costs $300,000. But the Raven surgical robot is much more affordable than the current industry leader in robotic surgery, the $1.8 million Intuitive Surgical da Vinci. Perhaps even more significantly, its operating system is open source.

The Raven, developed in a partnership with the University of Washington and UC Santa Cruz, also adds capabilities that the da Vinci doesn’t have: portability and remote operation.

The major advantage of robotic versus conventional surgery is precise control of small surgical instruments that are inserted in 1 to 2 centimeter incisions, or “ports” in the patient’s body. A surgeon manipulates hand-size controls to move the smaller instruments while being guided by a video feed from cameras that are also inserted in the body. Minimally invasive robotic surgery cuts recovery time for patients.

But adding portability, remote operation and open source programing to the mix promises to bring these benefits more affordably to more locations as well as to extend the reach of surgeons who might not be able to visit their patients in remote areas.

The open source nature of the project means other groups can open the hood of the Raven‘s Linux-based operating system and make their own improvements or add new capabilities, in contrast to the proprietary da Vinci system, which is stuck with one development team.

Universities around the US, which started taken delivery on the robots last year, are now at work programming new capabilities into their Ravens. For instance, a team led by Ken Goldberg at UC Berkeley is developing software and sensors to enable the system to autonomously remove dead tissue from a patient’s body. Such autonomy is important for remote operation, where communications lag and dropouts could put a patient at risk; the system will have to be able to carry on by itself when the human is briefly (or not so briefly) out of the loop.

The group behind the Raven hardware, currently in its second iteration as the Raven II, has spun out a company called Applied Dexterity to manufacture the machines while the original research team turns to new systems. For example, the Raven IV combines two Raven IIs to allow to surgeons to collaborate remotely on the same surgery. This could also become a valuable teaching aid, with a surgeon-in-training looking over the virtual shoulder of a surgeon performing an operation.

The head of the Raven’s development at the University of Washington, Blake Hannaford, envisions the Raven one day extending the reach of surgeons on charitable missions in developing countries. But beyond that, he told me on the phone today, “It’s not really just about a surgeon taking out a tumor in Africa. What it’s about is the local surgeons watching and learning.”