Mechatronics and the surgical revolution

Last Thursday I met a man with a degree in mechatronics.

Not so long ago I might have been accused of dreaming that up, confused by too many hours spent watching Mobile Suit GUNDAM. Yet Dr. Ferdinando Rodriguez y Baena is living proof that surgical robots are bringing science fiction to life in the operating theatre. He graduated from King’s College London with a first class degree in Mechatronics and Manufacturing Systems Engineering way back in 2000. Then he took a PhD in Medical Robotics. Now he works with the Mechatronics in Medicine Laboratory, researching the application of mechatronic surgery to medicine. He defines mechatronics as a combination of mechanical engineering, electronics and computer science.

He and Declan Murphy, consultant urologist at Guy’s Hospital, were talking to BBC Radio presenter Richard Hollingham as part of the Sci-Fi Surgery: Medical Robots exhibition at the Hunterian Museum ¬†of the Royal College of Surgeons of England. The talk took place after a screening of the Black Jack episode U-18 Knew, based on the manga by Osamu Tezuka, whose work features in the exhibition. A large audience, aged from primary school to well past retirement, attended both screening and talk and asked questions afterwards.

Mr. Murphy gave a vivid account of how robotic surgery can enable surgeons to use their skills more effectively while maintaining fully control of patient care. The Da Vinci surgical robot he uses makes a physically uncomfortable and demanding operation much easier, so that surgeons can do more work in a single day. It also helps speed patient recovery and release times, and assists remote training and supervision so that skills can be shared faster and more widely.

He and Dr. Rodriguez both felt that the kind of autonomous robot featured in U-18 Knew was a long way in the future, and might never happen. But robots controlled by surgeons, augmenting their skills and enabling them to work more effectively, are a major advance in medical science. For decades, Osamu Tezuka and other science fiction writers have imagined what robots might do for mankind. Now science is making their imagination real.

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