Surgical Robot Folds Tiny Paper Plane And Lets It Fly (video)

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da Vinci folds plane
A tiny paper plane created by a huge change in surgery - the use of robotics.

Sure, when I make a paper airplane it’s goofing off, but when a robot does it, it’s a phenomenal PR campaign. Doctor James Porter, head of the surgical robotic team at the Swedish Medical Center in Seattle, recently released a video of himself folding a tiny paper plane the size of a penny. Rather than risk a paper cut, the surgeon used the tiny pincers of the da Vinci robot from Intuitive Surgical to perform the origami. You can see Porter shape the plane in the three minute video below. Make sure not to miss his meager attempts to get it to fly towards the end.

The da Vinci has become the gold standard in robotic prostate surgery and other minimally invasive surgical procedures, but I think that flying an inch long plane is an example of its prowess that is much easier to watch. 360,000 viewers on YouTube seem to agree. The fact that Swedish Medical Center is touting the da Vinci (and Porter’s specially trained surgical team) is a good sign that we’re taking the first steps into the modern age of robotically enhanced medicine.

As fun as this video may be, it doesn’t really highlight the benefits of the da Vinci robot. With just a few small incisions, its long tube-like appendages can be inserted into the abdomen where its tiny pincers can perform complex surgical procedures inside you. No need to cut huge sections of your chest open. The system’s haptic controls (shown in the video) allow surgeons to get feedback from the robot’s claws – they can feel what the machine is doing. This is all absolutely amazing! (Update: My apologies, da Vinvi doesn’t have haptics, though other robotic surgery systems do.)

This video is trying to sell patients a little taste of that amazement. Swedish Medical Center isn’t the only group working that angle, as we’ve recently seen. I approve of the trend. Robotic surgery centers aren’t cheap to setup, but they can benefit patients immensely. If making gimmicky videos is the way to make people aware of the advantages of surgical robots, and to attract the funding hospitals need to adopt the technology, then so be it. Swedish Medical Center added their third da Vinci robot this past fall, hopefully with the moderate success of this video they’ll be able to keep expanding. As we produce more of these kinds of systems, and develop the special training needed to get doctors to use them, we are saving lives and improving the recovery of patients after they leave the operating room. As the robotic equipment, teleoperation, and artificial intelligence surgical assistance all continue to advance, we’ll get better and better results from these machines. One day these robots could perform procedures that would seem miraculous by current standards, but even today’s level of robotic surgery is extraordinary. Patients need to know that so they can make informed decisions.

Until a graph of the statistical benefits of surgical robots becomes sexy enough to sell the technology, we’ll just have to settle for PR stunts and viral videos. Which is fine by me…but if they start taking the da Vinci out fishing while I’m stuck in the office, I’m seriously going to start complaining.

[screen capture and video credit: Swedish Medical Center]