Colorado School of Mines Mechanical Engineering assistant professor Xiaoli Zhang and graduate student Songpo Li have developed a robotic laparoscope system that can help surgeons better perform laparoscopic surgery. Laparoscopy is an operation performed in the abdomen or pelvis through small incisions with a camera. Laparoscopic instruments (typically 0.5-1 centimeters in diameter) are inserted through small incisions and then operated inside a patient’s body with a laparoscope that allows the surgeon to see the surgical field on a monitor.

Courtesy of Xiaoli Zhang

Unlike open surgery, laparoscopic procedures have been known to reduce scarring, lessen blood loss, shorten recovery times, and decrease post-operative pain. However, due to limitations related to holding and positioning the laparoscope, surgeons struggle with physiologic tremors, fatigue, and the fulcrum effect. Zhang and Li’s attention-aware robotic laparoscope aims to eliminate some of these physical and mental burdens. ‘The robot arm holds the camera so the surgeon doesn’t have to,’ said Zhang. ‘Wherever you look, the camera will autonomously follow your viewing attention. It frees the surgeon from laparoscope intervention so the surgeon can focus on instrument manipulation only.’

The system tracks the surgeon’s viewing attention by analyzing gaze data. When the surgeon’s eyes stop on a new fixation area, the robot adjusts the laparoscope to show a different field of view that focuses on the new area of interest. To validate the effectiveness of the procedure, the team tested six participants on visualization tasks. Participants reported ‘they could naturally interact with the field of view without feeling the existence of the robotic laparoscope.’

In addition to healthcare applications, the technology could be used for the disabled and the elderly, who may have difficulty with upper-limb movements, according to Zhang and Li. ‘Using this system, the surgeon can perform the operation solo, which has great practicability in situations like the battlefield and others with limited human resources,’ said Li.

In September 2014, Li received the Colorado Innovation S.T.A.R.S. challenge award for ‘Best Technical Achievement’ at the college level during the JeffCo Innovation Faire. Zhang and Li are now working with clinical researchers and industry partners to commercialize their attention-aware robotic laparoscope.