Research News

Robots in the OR -- Stat!

Penelope the robot may free nurses to do more "human" tasks

As the decade unfolds with its shortage of nurses, the sheer volume of patients each nurse must care for is leading to a critical burden for each of these professionals.

While nurses will always be crucial to the care of patients, certain jobs may soon be accomplished by sophisticated robots. Surgeon Michael R. Treat and his team at Robotic Surgical Tech, Inc. have developed a robotic surgical assistant, named "Penelope," to perform tasks usually assigned to the scrub nurse.

All of Penelope's talents are made possible by the innovative application of artificial intelligence to surgical situations.

Penelope uses voice recognition to respond to a surgeon’s request for an instrument, handing it to the surgeon with a robotic arm. Using a visual processing capability, Penelope also retrieves the instrument when it is no longer needed. For safety, the robot even assists in keeping track of the surgical instrument count, helping to ensure that none are accidentally left inside the patient.

Penelope anticipates which instrument the surgeon will need next and selects that item from its tool kit, just as an experienced scrub nurse would. And like a nurse, Penelope can learn the instrument preferences of various surgeons.

While Penelope does not interact directly with patients, she can free the scrub nurse to do just that. The video above is a demonstration of Penelope's skill, shot during a demonstration in the operating room of New York-Presbyterian Hospital in May, 2004.

The machine is expected to make its clinical debut this spring at NewYork-Presbyterian/The Allen Pavilion, in which it will participate in a simple excision of a small, benign cyst.