My wife had surgery recently. We were told the surgery would be done robotically with a DaVinci surgical system. Fortunately, the condition for which she is being treated appears to be resolved by the surgery. But the events give me pause to contemplate the role of mechatronics in modern medicine.
I remember reading for many years about the development effort going into robotic surgery. Incredible effort to develop touch sensitive servo controlled actuators with force feedback that have the dexterity of the most skilled surgeon. These systems were complex, multi-axis motion control systems that were developed where force feedback technology didn’t exist. A lot of it had to be invented for the first time.
And all the many hours of effort paid off. These systems perform incredibly well. They make possible complex surgery that can be done more quickly, more efficiently and with significantly less patient trauma that conventional surgical methods.
But the relationship between medicine and mechatronics is incredibly more broad that just robotic surgery. The human genome project could not exist without high speed actuators to speed up the process of chemical analysis. Almost all forms of biological screening and chemical testing requires the use of 3 axis Cartesian gantry robots that are referred to as Lab Automation Robots. They are used to process trays of up to 96 samples at a time and perform thousands of tests automatically.
Then there’s the MRI and CAT Scan machines. Do you know why they are shrouded in white plastic covers? Because if you could actually see the 2 meter diameter, 2000 pound scanner inside the covers that is spinning at 300 rpm around your body, you probably would not sit still long enough to get the imaging work done. In addition to the complexity of scanning and sensing the human body in extraordinary detail, the mechatronic challenge of getting the payload to move that much mass at that speed is remarkable.
There are dozens of other examples of the relationship of mechatronics to medicine. The heart lung machine is simply a set of rather exotic pumps that pump blood and oxygen needed to sustain life during extreme surgery. High speed sterile packaging machinery prepared precise dosages of medicines in solution at blinding speed and with absolute traceability down to the individual dose. Sterile saline and sugar solutions used in surgery are made by the carload using every kind of mechatronic solution ever thought of.
No, mechatronics will never replace the incredible science that goes into each of these applications. But it is a key enabling technology that continues to make possible incredible advances in the field of medicine.