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STAR is a Finalist in the 2017 NASA iTech Challenge

Robotic assisted surgery has come a long way in the past decade. The Da Vinci robot is popular and proficient at a range of surgeries and has been regarded as a medical breakthrough. Yet, robots like the Da Vinci are not truly autonomous; a surgeon still operates the tools, albeit remotely. The development of a truly autonomous robot has remained a distant possibility, until now, with the release of STAR.

Every living creature, including humans and pigs, has unique contours, and it is necessary for the robot to have a level of autonomy to decide how to approach the wound in order to be most effective.

The STAR technology STAR – which stands for Smart Tissue Autonomous Robot, was recently named a finalist in the 2017 NASA iTech Challenge. The formal presentation is scheduled for August, 2017 at the National Institute of Aerospace in Virginia.

STAR is a surgical robot developed by The Children’s National Health System in Washington, DC. They used $1.5 million funding to develop this bold, robotic technology, a big step forward in developing a truly autonomous system for surgery.

Designed by the Hospital’s Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation, the autonomous soft tissue surgery technology has proven itself capable of suturing pig tissue, as well as live pigs, with better precision than a human hand. This was demonstrated in May 2016.

Developers explain pigs were chosen for prototype development and demonstrations because they are genetically closest to human skin.  The robot was tasked to stitch two portions of the intestine and was successful.  It can also be used for other surgical procedures like tumor removal. Miniaturizing the technology can further assist in making robotic transplants more feasible. At the very least, the tech can be used to assist in remote surgical applications.

The Age of Robotic Surgery

A picture of a bag of money and a surgical robot.

Although the day when robots perform autonomous surgery or reconstruction of injured body parts is still far off, autonomous suturing is a step in that direction. It has proven that even with the curves and contours of the human body, as well as internal organs, it is possible to have a safe and quick method to suture organs and close surgeries.

Further testing will have to be done before STAR can be included in the working tools kits of surgeons. One of the major drawbacks to robots performing a suture is the possibility that it cannot cope with an emergency when suturing has to be aborted, where the wound needs to be opened again, or other emergency procedures take priority.

It is worth noting that STAR is not just programmed to stitch sutures, but also to decide on its own where and how to make the sutures. Every living creature, including humans and pigs, has unique bodily contours, and it is necessary for the robot to have a level of autonomy to decide how to approach the wound in order to be most effective.

One of the proponents of STAR is Dr. Peter Kim, a vice president of the Institute. He led the team of five engineers in developing STAR and is listed as the director of Omniboros, Inc., a spin-off from the Children’s National Health System, that was given the license for STAR. Dr. Kim has also been part of other sister technologies of Children’s National including E-kare, a cell phone app that takes 3D pictures, allowing health care professionals to better address wounds.

STAR has been hailed as having a bold impact on the way surgical procedures are going to be done in the future. Improved surgical precision, coupled with the best medical doctors, paves the way for more accurate surgical procedures, reduced errors, and fewer complications.