Surgery, diagnostic imaging  

Finnish project to develop surgical robot compatible with magnetic resonance imaging

17 June 2005

A research project led by Professor Janne Heikkilä of the University of Oulu is developing a surgical robot that will make it possible to operate on a patient during magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The powerful magnetic fields generated by MRI scanners mean that iron-bearing materials such as steel cannot be used in the robot.

Operations are rarely performed inside MRI scanners because their design makes it almost impossible for a surgeon to get in a suitable position to operate and many tools are not sufficiently non-magnetic.

The purpose of the MRI-compatible surgical robot is particularly intended to reduce movement of the patient during operations performed inside the magnetic imaging device. According to modern practice, only update pictures of the patient are taken in the imager, and the actual operation is done outside the machine. This results in unnecessary movement of the patient and patient monitors. Surgical time would be significantly reduced if the patient did not have to be moved, while picture updating would become easier and closer to real time.

A surgical MRI-compatible robot can work in the brain, where accessing the surgical area is a problematic and precise task. If necessary, the robot can also be adapted for use in other parts of the body. The longer-term goal of the project is to develop an interactive and easy-to-use device, a robot arm, that the surgeon can use like any other surgical instrument.

The research project comprises four areas:

The surgical robot research is divided into four different parts:

  1. image processing for an MRI-compatible robot;
  2. sensor and communications solutions;
  3. estimation of geometric relationships for a flexible structure; and
  4. robot structure and improving the MRI compatibility of tools and mechanics.

The focus of a research group led by Professor Kalervo Nevala is on improving the MRI compatibility of the robot's mechanics and developing clinical tools. Their target is to produce a functional prototype of a robot that is compatible with the magnetic imaging device environment. There is a clear need for a surgical MRI-compatible robot, because the mechanical, electronic and magnetic properties of current commercial robots are not suitable for the hospital environment.

Professor Janne Heikkilä heads a research group whose main target is to develop image processing and analysis methods that could be utilised with the robot. The methods and technical solutions under development are expected to improve the usability of the robot and make it possible to perform operations where the presence of medical staff in the immediate vicinity of the patient is unnecessary. This reduces the number of errors and distortions occurring in MRI pictures.

Professor Risto Myllylä's group is responsible for development of an MRI-compatible sensor and transmission of the sensor data between equipment working in the imaging device environment. The different parts of the research cover the development of a small, three-dimensional MRI-compatible power sensor, optical transmission of control and sensor data, testing of wireless data communications solutions and minimisation of electro-magnetic disturbances.

The contribution of Group Manager Mikko Sallinen's research group is valuable knowledge concerning how flexible structures affect measurement accuracy. The group's aim is to develop techniques to help retain the robot's degrees of freedom as well as possible during very complex movements.

Future applications

Projected future uses of the robot include inserting active medication dispensers into the human body, in exactly the right place. Other possible applications include use as an aid in neurosurgery, urology, radiology and orthopaedics as well as in other clinical applications, such as prostate and breast cancer examinations.

Research on the robot is being conducted as part of the KITARA research programme (The Application of Information Technology in Mechanical, Civil and Automation Engineering) funded by the Academy of Finland. KITARA began this past spring with the goal of reinforcing basic research competence in the mechanical and construction sectors by utilising data and communications technology in those fields. Other participants in the design and financing of the programme include Tekes (National Technology Agency of Finland), the Ministry of the Environment, the Confederation of Finnish Construction Industries and RAKLI ry (The Finnish Building Owners and Managers Association).

Additional information

Machine Vision Group, University of Oulu
Professor Janne Heikkilä,
Tel: + 358 (0)8 553 2786

Optoelectronics and Measurement Technology Laboratory, University of Oulu
Professor Risto Myllylä,
Tel: + 358 (0)8 553 2671

Mechatronics and Machine Diagnostics Laboratory, University of Oulu
Professor Kalervo Nevala Tel: + 358 (0)8 553 2053

VTT Electronics, Mechatronics Research Group
Group Manager Mikko Sallinen
Tel: + 358 (0)20 722 111 (switchboard)

The Application of Information Technology in Mechanical, Civil and Automation Engineering (KITARA) research programme
Senior Science Adviser Ritva Taurio, Academy of Finland,
Tel. + 358 (0)9 7748 8384

Academy of Finland Communications
Information Specialist Terhi Loukiainen
Tel. + 358 (0)9 7748 8385, + 358 (0)40 828 1784

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