Every two weeks, Greg Fischer and some colleagues made the three-hour drive, sans traffic, from Worcester, Mass. to Niskayuna, NY. Fischer, Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Robotics Engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), and the director of the Automation and Interventional Medicine Robotics Laboratory, is a pioneer of MRI-guided surgical robots. He and and his team were doing live thermal imaging experiments at GE Global Research. This was part of a grant to develop a robotic system that, operating within an MRI scanner, delivers a minimally-invasive probe into the brain to destroy metastatic brain tumors.
Things went well until the last trip that took place a few months ago. “We did some work on the robot [at WPI], packed it up, and drove off,” Fischer said. “But the robot broke by the time we got there. It got too cold outside during transit and changed the resonant frequency of the piezoelectric motors, is our theory. Then we wasted an entire day to get it fixed again.”
Roadblocks to innovation are all too familiar to robotics engineers. But the development cycle for Fischer and other medical robotics developers will hopefully now become more streamlined. WPI yesterday celebrated the opening of PracticePoint, its new R&D center for healthcare cyberphysical systems. The goal of PracticePoint is to accelerate the development of anything from smart insulin pumps to fully autonomous surgical robots. Fischer is PracticePoint’s director.
PracticePoint is a membership-based facility that offers access to point-of-practice clinical suites, including a one-bedroom residential apartment, a surgical imaging suite with a top-of-the-line GE Signa Premier MRI scanner, a mock operating room, a patient care suite, a motion capture lab, an acoustic chamber for neuroscience research, and more. Current corporate members include Boston Scientific, GE Life Sciences, Karl Storz, MITRE, and more.
Announced in April 2017, PracticePoint was funded by a $5 million grant from the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, a $2.5 million commitment from GE Life Sciences and a $9.5 million investment from WPI. Construction on the facility, which is located at Worcester’s Gateway Park, began in the summer of 2018.
Fischer said one of the key selling points is that PracticePoint’s fully-instrumented spaces have been co-located with advanced manufacturing capabilities. PracticePoint offers a variety of 3D printing, CNC manufacturing, laser cutting, and electronics assembly and test capabilities. While setting up and testing the equipment, Fischer had a little fun. He took an MRI of his brain and 3D printed the scans using the lab equipment.
“We’re not a place where companies will come and just rent out a bench,” Fischer said. “We want companies to engage with us and do experiments here.”
The motion capture lab has a 10-camera Viacom system with .2MM accuracy to track body movement. It also has force plates in the floor to measure and track footsteps. Fischer said the force plates have been used during the development of a rehabilitative exoskeleton. “As you’re walking, the force plates tell you where the force is acting on your foot,” he said. “We’re using forces pads in the baseplate of the exoskeleton to figure out where you are in your gait cycle. We can then calibrate that to make sure it’s working the way it’s supposed to.”
The motion capture lab was originally intended to be used more for biomechanical research. However, it turns out a high-accuracy motion capture can also be used to characterize surgical robots. “We had an endoscope company come measure the curvature of their flexible endoscopes and a neurosurgery robot measuring the accuracy [in the motion capture lab.]”
The mock operating room is about twice the size of a normal operating room, Fischer said. But it has everything you would need to perform mock surgical processes. It has operating room lighting, medical gases (oxygen, nitrogen, compressed air), waste gas extraction, vacuum hookups and various power hookups. It even has slide rails for the motion capture system to track objects during surgery, including how accurate a surgical robot is. WPI has an older generation Intuitive Surgical da Vinci robot in the room, complete with a custom blackbox to control and measure all the setup joint locations.
The apartment has a gantry system designed to work with the disabled population. However, Fischer said it was spec’d to also support the weight of humanoid robots such as Boston Dynamics’ Atlas. “I really want to bring Atlas here,” he said.
“The State has given us quite a bit of funding to act as a medical device accelerator,” said WPI Assistant Vice President Rachel LeBlanc. “So we co-located engineering capabilities with real clinical and healthcare environments. PracticePoint is a place where companies can feel at home and build a consortium to develop medical technologies.”
WPI has been developing medical devices for some time and has experienced many challenges along the way. PracticePoint is an effort to make it easier to overcome those challenges.
“You need places where great ideas can be tested,” said Worcester Polytechnic Institute President Laurie Leshin. “When we bring together creative engineers, scientists, clinicians, companies, and entrepreneurs to work together in a novel setting like PracticePoint, I believe the results will be extraordinary.”
“Iterative development is really the key,” Fischer said. “We can now test our MRI-compatible robot here and modify it in the manufacturing lab. We can then test it again and get quantitative comparison data to get things out into the world.”