Robots and robotic technologies have a long history of success in healthcare. But recent advancements in the field of collaborative robots have made for additional possibilities to support the healthcare sector across a variety of applications.
Corey Ryan, Manager of Medical Robotics at KUKA Robotics, is one of the keynote speakers at the Healthcare Robotics Engineering Forum, which takes place Dec. 9-10 in Santa Clara and is produced by The Robot Report. Ryan’s keynote, “Collaborative Robots as a Developmental Platform for New Healthcare Applications,” will describe some of the ways cobots are currently being used to support healthcare applications. He will also compare and contrast different methods for adopting collaborative robots, and highlight selection criteria for choosing collaborative robotics systems.
We caught up with Ryan to learn about how he got into robotics, why cobots are playing a bigger role in healthcare, and healthcare robotics trends he’s keeping an eye on. To learn more about how KUKA’s LBR Med cobot can be used in healthcare applications, visit them in Booth 300 at the Healthcare Robotics Engineering Forum.
How did you get into robotics?
I started my career as a biomedical technologist, fixing medical equipment in hospitals. I was working at GE Healthcare in various sales and marketing positions when a friend from college reached out about a sales position for medical robotics at KUKA. They knew all about robots, but needed someone who understood technology and the medical market. It’s been a great fit ever since.
What should robotics engineers remember about healthcare applications?
There are a lot of additional regulations, and patient safety is everything – it’s a very different attitude from production environments.
What do you think is the most important ingredient technology?
They are all important, but since few systems are currently fully autonomous, the sensor technology that is enabling the newest treatment systems. Torque sensors to detect “touch,” cameras to locate the patient and deliver treatment at a specific point, and other sensors are all helping robots interact with patients in a way that was nearly impossible 10 years ago.
Going forward, as systems take on more and more procedural tasks in patient treatments, then AI will become the next game changer.
How do healthcare robotics applications benefit from advances in other technologies, such as machine learning, human-machine interaction, mobile manipulation, and 5G?
The benefits are huge! KUKA produces about 40,000 robots per year, but medical is a very small percentage of that (less than 2%). Medical gets a lot of attention at KUKA because of the impact on people, but its hard to financially justify the development of completely new technologies with such sales numbers. However, KUKA has adapted the LBR iiwa robot to create the LBR Med, which is the first off-the-shelf commercial robot certified to the IEC 60601 standard as the robotic component of a medical device.
What’s the most promising area of healthcare for robotics startups?
Orthopedics is definitely the hottest area for robotics right now, but there is a lot of competition from the big medical device companies. The next hot spot for medical robotics is the area of surgery. Several different surgical systems are currently in development by different startups (Activ Surgical, AOT, etc.) and they will change that market substantially since Intuitive Surgical has operated virtually competition free.
With competition comes a market with more opportunities for expansion into new areas. AOT is using a cold laser to literally cut off the entire jaw (cranio-maxillofacial surgery) in a pattern that allows for repositioning, and that cutting pattern is entirely enabled by the robot. Sensus Healthcare has just been FDA approved for IORT applications using a robotically-controlled system to deliver precise radiation dose after tumor removal.
Why are cobots playing a bigger role in healthcare applications?
Cobots are certainly making it easier to implement robotics in healthcare, but many of them have limitations like a lack of stiffness or sensing that can make it unsuitable for certain applications. However, the acceptance of people in the workspace that the cobot market has created is definitely driving a higher acceptance of robots in healthcare. Interestingly, KUKA has had large industrial robots also used in patient treatment systems (Accuray Cyberknife, Siemens Artis Pheeno, etc.) for nearly 20 years.
Can you preview what your keynote is about at the Healthcare Robotics Engineering Forum?
I will be discussing the advantages and tradeoffs of using an off-the-shelf cobot versus developing a custom solution. Of course, KUKA encourages the use of our robot as the platform for many medical systems since it has a robust feature set and is supported by a global company with a long history in medical robotics.
What trend do you expect to see in healthcare robotics in the coming year?
Every company is looking at robotics, in part because it is trendy and having a robotic system is necessary to showcase your company as a technology leader. New surgical robotic companies are coming to market over the next year or two and should have a huge impact on the surgical procedures that they address.