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When we think of robots and robotics, the first thing that pops to mind is often a human look-alike machine. But robots take on far more diverse forms than the Terminator. By the way, a company named Cyberdyne really does exist. They are located in Japan and are mainly known for their HAL 5 powered exoskeleton !

The word robot derives from the Czech word robota meaning work or chore, and first appeared in Czech writer Karel Čapek’s 1921 play R. U. R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). A robot can be defined as a mechatronics device executing tasks which are repetitive, unsafe, difficult or impossible for a human or executing tasks better than a human. The term robotics was coined by Isaac Asimov in his 1942 short story Runaround, in which he also states his three laws of robotics.

Whereas a robot is any machine corresponding to the definition given above, the term android designates a robot or synthetic organism having human-like shape and behavior, and the term cyborg designates a being part organic, part robot and applies to a pre-existing living organism having restored or enhanced capabilities. But this is all semantics, and with the accelerating rate of development in science and engineering, the line between them becomes more and more blurred.

Currently in the healthcare domain, robots are predominantly used in three types of applications : patient monitoring/evaluation, medical supplies delivery, and assisting healthcare professionals in unique capacities. Collaborative robots.

Doctors and healthcare professionals being very busy people, on the one hand, and patients often residing in remote locations or unable to travel to the hospital or clinic, on the other hand, robots are providing new and/or easier ways for physicians to interact with patients beyond the bedside. Anybots and InTouch market telehealth robots enabling doctors to remotely interact with their patients.

For moving things, robots are the way to do. Be it on-demand requests, regularly scheduled deliveries, for bringing medications or food to patients or transporting large payloads, today’s robots can carry out these task efficiently. More details on this topic here.

While most experts agree that we are still a long way from completely autonomous robots, collaborative robots, as opposed to a simple telemanipulator, are the next step in healthcare robotics. Robotics companies are developing general-purpose robots which OEM medtech companies in turn are using for medical applications as varied as hair transplant or bone osteotomy. Such robots include the KUKA LBR iiwa or Staübli’s robotic arms.

Outside of the hospital, robots and robotics contribute a great deal to healthcare. They are a big part of laboratory automation in R&D facilities, and are used in pharmaceutical production plants. 3D printing robots are used to print prosthetics (doesn’t that sound like Cyberdyne – not the Japanese one?). New research is developing 3D bioprinting technologies, which promises to print living organs. In a more down-to-earth and broader vision, I would include such simple devices as robot vacuum cleaners. Indeed, keeping a salubrious environment is a direct contributing factor to health.

New trends in robotics steer toward connected robots and cloud robots. This puts renewed emphasis on misbehaving robots. Such misbehavior could be the result of a faulty robot or, worse, could be intentional, as researchers at University of Washington demonstrated by easily hacking the Raven II surgical robot. A hacker hijacking the painting robots on the assembly line of a car manufacturer is one thing, but the same hacker hijacking my car while I’m driving or the surgical robot while I’m lying on the operating table is something else. To help tackle the challenges of safety and security in robotics, the Foundation for Responsible Robotics was created in the Netherlands earlier this year, with the goal to “To promote the responsible design, development, implementation, and policy of robots embedded in our society”.

 

To learn more about robotics and healthcare, Robotics Trends and Robotics Business Review have resources dedicated to healthcare.

As always, comments, questions, feedback are welcome.

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