Can A Robot Go to Work for You? Or Perform Your Next Surgery?

A laparoscopic robotic surgery machine. Patient-side cart of the da Vinci surgical system.

According to a new study, the market for telepresence robots is developing rapidly and will have a significant impact on collaboration and communication in the enterprise, education, healthcare, and consumer markets. But what are telepresence robots and what do they do?

Telerobotics is the area of robotics concerned with the control of semi-autonomous robots from a distance, chiefly using a wireless network or tethered connections. It allows users to not just video conference, but to have mobility while they chat.

According to the report from Tractica, a market intelligence firm that focuses on human interaction with technology, starting from a base of 4,200 units in 2015, annual telepresence robot unit shipments will reach 31,600 by 2020, with cumulative shipments for the 5-year forecast period totaling nearly 92,000. But where are they headed?

Telepresence, the next step in video conferencing?
“The telepresence robot is the next stage of evolution beyond stationary video conferencing,” says principal analyst Wendell Chun. “These new systems take advantage of the existing telecommunications infrastructure as well as recent advances in robotics technology. The core enabling technologies for these robots are already widespread in the market, with costs on a steady downward trajectory, and no significant barriers exist to broader levels of adoption in the years to come.”

However, a review by James Vincent for the verge.com, who used a telepresence robot to give him a presence at a US office from his UK home, shows he wasn’t completely sold on the idea. He described his telepresence robot as, “an iPad on a Segway because, well, that’s basically what it is. There is a pair of squat wheels at the bottom and a telescoping pole that extends from three feet to five feet tall.”  His conclusion was that he might have well just been on Skype, “This is one of the problems with telepresence: it’s been around for years, but it’s still not clear why anyone needs to use it.”

Other applications
The Tractica report points to functions beyond video conferencing. In healthcare, early adopters include hospitals where patients have access to leading medical specialists from all over the world.  The technology also allows off-site medical professionals to move, look around, communicate, and participate from remote locations.

For teachers than cannot be in the classroom or students who are not mobile, they can now be in the classroom without actually being there.  For executives that cannot be in multiple places at once, they can now be in the factory for inspections or attending an important meeting without actually spending time on an airplane.

Advances in Medical Devices
Currently a lot of telerobotic research is being done in the field of medical devices, and minimally invasive surgical systems. With a robotic surgery system, a surgeon can work inside the body through tiny holes just big enough for the manipulator, with no need to open up the chest cavity to allow hands inside.

Other areas where robotics are being explored within the medical arena include:

  • Rehabilitation robots: This group facilitates and supports the lives of infirm, elderly people, or those with dysfunction of body parts effecting movement. These robots are also used for rehabilitation and related procedures, such as training and therapy.
  • Biorobots: A group of robots designed to imitate the cognition of humans and animals.
  • Pharmacy automation: Robotic systems to dispense oral solids in a retail pharmacy setting or preparing sterile IV admixtures in a hospital pharmacy setting.
  • Disinfection robot: has the capability to disinfect a whole room in mere minutes, generally using ultraviolet light technology. They are being used to fight Ebola virus disease.

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Lindsey McCoy MPA, is an Executive Medical Recruiter and former CEO in the not for profit sector.

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