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Canadarm2 spinoff technology transforming surgery on Earth

Since its space debut in 1981, Canadarm has made its mark on the world stage. In exchange for Canadarm's vital contributions to NASA's space shuttle program, Marc Garneau was granted a seat aboard Space Shuttle Challenger as part of Mission STS-41-G in 1984, making him the first Canadian astronaut to launch to space.

Now Canadarm2, the next-generation robotic arm, is accomplishing feats that it was never intended to do. For example, Canadarm2 skillfully captures free-flying spacecraft designed to deliver cargo—and one day, people—to the International Space Station (ISS). Guided by robotic experts at the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) and NASA, Canadarm2 and Dextre, the ISS's space handyman, are entrusted to unload science experiments and other valuable equipment from the spacecraft cargo trunks and install them on the ISS. They also carry out substantial maintenance on the Space Station.

Taking Canadian expertise in automation, robotics and imaging into the next era of innovation, pioneering scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs have been developing cutting-edge spinoff technologies for industry, medicine, and other applications based on Canadarm, Canadarm2 and Dextre. Examples of these spinoffs include neuroArm, the world's first robot capable of performing surgery inside magnetic resonance machines, and the Image-Guided Autonomous Robot (IGAR), a new digital surgical solution expected to increase access to life-saving surgical techniques to fight breast cancer.

Canada is continuing to push the technology for applications on Earth. The latest is a robotic digital microscope set to transform the way surgery is performed in hospitals.

Revolutionizing neurosurgery with robots

In 2013, Toronto-based Synaptive Medical approached Canadian leader in space robotics MDA to develop a medical solution, based on Canadarm2 technology, to potentially help neurosurgeons perform minimally invasive clinical procedures with greater safety and efficiency.

Synaptive launched the first generation of the solution, BrightMatter™ Drive, in 2015. After listening to feedback from surgeons within their partner hospitals, Synaptive released Modus V™, the second generation of their robotic digital microscope, in October 2017. Modus V now anchors the company's full surgical solution—which focuses on giving surgeons the right information at the right time during surgery—to help patients with a variety of brain and spine conditions. The technology is being used in 30 hospitals across North America.

Canadian space robotics technology sparked the development of Drive, the first generation of Synaptive Medical's robotic digital microscope. (Credit: NASA)

Launching capabilities from space into health care

Like Canadarm2, Modus V is a highly flexible instrument adept at aiding in delicate surgical procedures performed in a uniquely challenging environment. Surgeons use automation to position its robotic arm for an optimal view of the surgical field through high-powered optics, allowing them to focus on the surgical procedure. Automation allows the powerful robotic digital microscope to seamlessly move and almost intuitively position itself with little effort from the surgeon.

The surgical field is displayed on a large screen, providing the whole surgical team with a global view of the patient's brain and spine. When used in combination with other Synaptive technologies, such as BrightMatter™ Plan and Guide, Modus V may allow surgeons to operate on brain tumours previously deemed inoperable.

Several members of the Synaptive team, including Josh Richmond, senior director of engineering, are MDA veterans applying the technical skills they acquired in the space sector to solving problems in the operating room.

"MDA's strong foundation in robotic control systems allowed us to jumpstart our product development," says Richmond. "Canadarm technology has a proven history of reliability and performance. That history, combined with our collaborative partnership, has helped Synaptive get where we are today."

In the operating room at OU Medical Center, Modus V™, sets a new standard for robot-assisted neurosurgery with the most powerful optics available on the market that provide unprecedented views of patient anatomy. (Credit: Synaptive Medical)

A growing Canadian success story

Based in Toronto and founded by a team of serial entrepreneurs, Synaptive Medical began operations in 2012 with six employees. After outgrowing the living rooms of its founding team, the company incubated in MaRS Discovery District's entrepreneurship hub, and has since grown to over 240 highly qualified personnel. With two facilities in Toronto's fashion district, the company is building its global presence while continuing to refine its surgical, imaging and data products in collaboration with surgeons and researchers all over the world.

"Synaptive's success is powered by teams who bring business and technical insight from a variety of sectors to bear on solving the problems we observe in collaboration with our surgeon partners," says Cameron Piron, co-founder, president and chief strategy officer. "We're finding ways to combine technology designed for space with optics expertise drawn from the defence and film industries with data-driven interfaces to give our surgeons timely information. It's an exciting time to be working in neurosurgery."

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