Canadian Space Technology to Help Sick Children

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Researchers at the SickKids Hospital Centre for Image-Guided Innovation & Therapeutic Intervention (CIGITI) in Toronto, Canada, turned to the technology behind Dextre, the Canadian Space Agency's robotic handyman on the International Space Station, to build a new robot capable of performing delicate procedures on little patients more accurately and faster than a surgeon's hands.
(Credit: Canadian Space Agency)

Not much rivals the dexterity of a good surgeon's hands. But humans being humans, fatigue or even tremors after a long day at the hospital can make things challenging, especially when operating on small children.

That is why Toronto's SickKids Centre for Image-Guided Innovation & Therapeutic Intervention (CIGITI) turned to the Canadian space technology behind Canadarm, Canadarm2 and Dextre and partnered with MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. (MDA) to develop KidsArm.

The third prototype of KidsArm, the first image-guided robotic surgical arm in the world specifically designed for pediatric surgery, is currently being tested at SickKids Hospital, and researchers are hoping that the technology might soon lend a helping hand to surgeons around the country. While more testing is needed, the robot is also promising for fetal, cardiac, neurological and urological surgeries.

Using a pair of hand controllers in conjunction with high-precision, real-time imaging technology, surgeons can pinpoint the area of concern to make it easier to reconnect delicate vessels, for example. KidsArm is also equipped with miniaturized dexterous tools that can cut, coagulate, apply suction, or use a laser. It is capable of working 10 times faster and with more accuracy than a surgeon's hands when performing intricate procedures.

Advanced technologies such as imaged-based tissue tracking and robotic assistance select and track sutures so that surgeons can compensate for the tissue motion that sometimes makes these surgeries difficult. A stereo camera generates a 3D point cloud, a set of data points that guide the tool tip and apply a series of sutures. KidsArm pushes the envelope using advanced imaging to identify suture locations. This allows the surgeon to automate the suturing of small vessels and other microsurgical tasks.

The precision required by KidsArm has to be at least 10 times better than what Dextre is able to achieve. To face this technical challenge, the MDA team adopted the virtual decomposition control (VDC) approach developed by Canadian Space Agency (CSA) engineer Wen-Hong Zhu. Thanks to this technology, KidsArm is capable of performing intricate procedures such as the suturing of blood vessels and tissues 10 times faster and with more accuracy than a surgeon's hands. The VDC is a Canadian game-changing technology for precision control of future medical manipulators and space manipulators.

In terms of robotics, the team used a combination of industrial robots, control electronics, cameras and haptics (force-feedback controllers). The control software evolved directly from the Dextre and Canadarm programs at MDA, and the vision was adapted from their satellite navigation work for the CSA.

One day, this technology may help by making medical procedures on children less invasive and less painful, allowing them to return home faster... so that kids can be kids.