US may lose lead in biomedical robots
11 October 2005
Columbus, Ohio, USA. The United States' lead in research on robots for
use in biology and medicine could change in the next few years, according to
a report on robotics research and development in the United States, Japan,
Korea and Western Europe.
Unless the US government boosts funding for robotics research, the United
States — the world leader for research and manufacturing of robotic systems
for tasks such as surgery and DNA sequencing — will likely have to start
relying on technology from other countries, said Yuan F. Zheng, Professor of
Electrical and Computer Engineering at Ohio State University.
Zheng is one of six authors of the World Technology Evaluation Center
International Study of Robotics, a two-year look at robotics research and
development around the world. He is lead author of the chapter on robotics
for biological and medical applications. His co-authors are George Bekey of
the University of Southern California, and Art Sanderson of Rensselaer
Polytechnic Institute. They presented their results at the recent National
Science Foundation event “Robots: An Exhibition of U.S. Automatons from the
Leading Edge of Research” in Washington, DC.
Their conclusion was that American scientists lack a “culture” for
robotics — a nationwide community that supports work in this specialty, with
an overarching philosophy to guide it.
“We cannot say there's a systematic theory for robotics in biological and
medical applications in this country, because the scientists who do the work
come from so many different disciplines,” Zheng said.
“I remember a few years ago when American research accounted for 80% of
papers presented at robotics conferences. Now we're tied with Japan at less
than 30%, followed by Korea ,” Zheng said.
Most American scientists who develop biomedical robotics belong to one
academic department on a university campus, and perform interdisciplinary
research that crosses over into other departments. Some are engineers who
know a little biology; others are biologists who know a little engineering.
Still others are chemists, physicists, or physicians. They are scattered
around the campus, without a formal robotics program to unite them.
If more universities had such programs, the United States could grow the
culture it needs to sustain its role as a robotics leader, Zheng and his
colleagues suggest. More students would have a formal way to learn both
engineering and the life sciences, and train for a future in this area.
Universities will need more funding to establish these programs, Zheng
said. It's an essential step that has to happen before robots can do for the
American laboratory and operating room what they did for the factory nearly
50 years ago. While the United States has reduced its support of robotics
research in recent years, other countries are boosting resources in this
area, Zheng noted.
To compile the report, Zheng and his coauthors surveyed major foreign
universities that had a robotics program for biology or medicine. They
visited Japan, Korea, and countries in Western Europe .
The report details applications of robotics for biology and medicine that
are under development worldwide. They include capsule devices that diagnose
disease inside the body; prosthetic limbs that obey their owner's
neurological commands; and tools for arthroscopic surgery, drug discovery,
and fast testing of biological samples.
“These are all reasons why robotics is needed,” he said. “For any task
that is difficult for human hands to do, or involves things too small to
see, robotic tools and robotic vision can help.”
He cited surgical tools that are already in use in hospitals around the
United States. Doctors routinely use remote-controlled robotics to operate
in constrained spaces, such as inside the heart, brain, spinal cord, throat
The report was sponsored by the National Science Foundation, NASA and the
National Institutes of Health.
Contact: Yuan F Zheng,