Remote robotics in COVID times

6th December 2021
Sam Holland

Perhaps the most major catalyst for the production of robotics has been the world’s response to COVID-19: lockdowns and their resultant rise in home-based working have, by necessity, led to the improvement of many areas of robotics – particularly the remote-controlled field of medtech known as ‘telerobotics’.

What is telerobotics?

While definitions of ‘telerobotics’ vary across the industry, the term will be used here to mean ‘the remote operation of robots by one or more humans’. More specifically, telerobotics involves robots that are at least partially controlled (some telerobots have a degree of autonomy) by one or more people using human-machine interfaces – but never are those humans and machines within close proximity.

This is crucial of course, as, particularly in 2020 when physical distancing was in abundance, many people would have been unable to go anywhere near robots if such machinery was in occupied places, especially COVID wards.

What is a key application of telerobotics?

While there are countless uses for telerobotics, the focus here will be on healthcare, given that the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021 saw the rise of physical distancing and self-isolation reach an all-time high. This is perhaps the main reason that telerobotics (which was already crucial due to pre-COVID search and rescue missions) has recently become more prominent than ever before.

As mentioned, the use of telerobotics has proved paramount in COVID wards: the technology has allowed medical experts to both treat, and limit the spread of infection from, sufferers of coronavirus disease. In parallel to the benefits of telemedicine (wherein medical appointments are carried out over video calls), which has also been thoroughly utilised throughout the COVID lockdowns, telerobotics has allowed hospital staff to diagnose and treat patients while maintaining a safe distance.

The subfield of telerobotics: telesurgery

One particular area of telerobotics that has been bolstered since 2020 is a subfield of the technology: telesurgery. Telesurgery, also known as remote surgery, involves robotic surgical equipment that is controlled, partially or completely, by one or more surgeons through human-machine interfaces on a shared wireless network.

Such a form of surgery was first utilised in mid-2001, when the surgeon Dr Jacques Marescaux remotely removed a female patient’s gallbladder. And ‘remotely’ is an understatement: he was in New York and she was in France!

The problem of latency

It is phenomenal that, over 20 years ago, wireless communication and robotics were advanced to such a point that remote surgery was possible at a transatlantic level – decades before ‘physical distancing’ and ‘self-isolation’ became staple terms in medical care.

Nevertheless, the problem of latency (albeit just a split second’s worth) was an inevitable concern in the operation: Dr Marescaux had to work with delayed communications when carrying out the surgical procedure, especially as it took place in the early noughties. In fact, the latency concerns over telerobotics have persisted ever since.

Where 5G comes in

Despite the above, now, as we near the end of 2021, remote robotics has reached the point that 5G may soon be able to allow such COVID-secure surgeries to be achieved in real time using tactile internet. (Tactile internet is when human-machine interfaces, such as telerobotics, VR systems, and so on, provide their users with instant haptic feedback from the very devices that they control.)

As 5G continues to become ever more prevalent, the communications network could render the already-breakthrough approaches to remote medical operations and patient diagnoses better than ever before.

To quote from the conclusion of the journal, ‘The potential impact of 5G telecommunication technology on ophthalmology’: 

“If the 5G network delivers as promised, technologies including VR, AI, teleophthalmology and telesurgery may be key assistive components in the delivery of improved healthcare to the global population.”

Not bad for a communications technology whose masts were blamed for transmitting COVID less than two years ago!

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