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Gallery: From robo-pills to cyber-surgeons

While the debate over who's going to pay for health care rages on, technology that will assist the diagnosis and treatment of patients is falling into place.
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By Andy Smith, Associate Editor on
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1 of 9 Andy Smith/ZDNet
While the debate over who's going to pay for health care rages on, technology that will assist the diagnosis and treatment of patients is falling into place.

Here are robots designed to care for patients rather than operate on them. The RP7, a remote presence robot that allows clinicians to communicate with patients and colleagues via a video link without actually having to be in the same location.

Patients can also connect to medical devices via the robot, such as electronic stethoscopes, ECG machines and ultrasound. Data gathered by the instruments can then be accessed by clinicians using a remote control station.

This is part of an exhibition on medical robots from London's Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons of England, which chronicles the history of medical treatment.

This gallery was produced by Tim Ferguson of silicon.com.

Photo credit: InTouch Technologies

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2 of 9 Andy Smith/ZDNet
This is the legged camera pill, a robotic prototype developed by Scuola Superiore Sant'Anna, part of the University of Pisa in Italy.

Once swallowed by a patient, the device is moved by remote control around the stomach and further down the digestive system using its small mechanical legs, which grip the side of the intestine walls.

It is hoped this kind of device will be more comfortable for a patient than the more traditional method of investigating their stomach - a fiber-optic endoscope - which has to be pushed into the body by a clinician.

The device was developed between 2003 and 2005 with the support of the European Commission.

Photo credit: Scuola Superiore Sant'Anna

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Another prototype developed by Scuola Superiore Sant'Anna on show at the Hunterian is this swimming camera capsule, which is also designed to be used in the stomach.

The patient drinks half a litre of polyethylene glycol solution to expand their stomach then the robot is swallowed and made to swim around the stomach to investigate any problems via remote control. You can see the small fans that propel the robot on the left.

Photo credit: Scuola Superiore Sant'Anna

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The exhibition also features this prototype of a self-propelling colonoscope, developed by Era Endoscopy

It was inspired by the inch worm and uses grippers and extenders to pull itself through the bowel. Again, this device is aimed at reducing patient discomfort compared to the standard procedure.

Photo credit: Era Endoscopy

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Perhaps the most interesting robot on display at the Hunterian is the assembling reconfigurable endoluminal surgical system (Ares), another prototype creation from Scuola Superiore Sant'Anna.

The Ares is made up of 15 different sections to be swallowed by a patient. Once swallowed, the sections assemble themselves within the stomach and the complete device can then be used to carry out surgical procedures via remote control.

In this way, surgeons can avoid making external incisions in the body which helps minimise pain and shortens recovery time.

Photo credit: Scuola Superiore Sant'Anna

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Another care robot featured in the exhibition is the RI-Man developed by Japanese company Riken. It has sensors which 'smell' and hear as well as arms that can be used to carry patients weighing up to 80lbs, as shown above.

Photo credit: Riken Bio-Mimetic Control Research Center

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Another exhibit - the Bloodbot - was developed by Imperial College London in 2001, and is aimed at allowing people to carry out medical procedures without the need to go to a medical facility.

It has a probe which locates a vein in the arm and a vacuum syringe which then taps the vein and draws up the blood. The device isn't commercially available.

Photo credit: The Royal College of Surgeons of England/Imperial College London

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This is the FreeHand which is used by surgeons to control a camera inside a patient.

The surgeon controls the direction of the camera, attached to a fibre optic cable inside the body, with a device attached to their head - by turning right or left, the camera will move its direction accordingly.

The surgeon can also move the camera forwards or backwards progress with a foot pedal.

The FreeHand is commercially available.

Photo credit: Prosurgics Ltd

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The Probot is a prototype built by Imperial College London and trialled at Guy's Hospital in 1991. It's designed to remove parts of the prostate using a pre-programmed plan set up by ultrasound - although it can always be overridden by the doctor in attendance.

Photo credit: Imperial College London

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