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 and knee.

The report was sponsored by the National Science Foundation, NASA and the National Institutes of Health.

Contact: Yuan F Zheng,  Zheng.5@osu.edu

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