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Intuitive Surgical

Heart surgery by robot, and the surgeon with the joystick

Intuitive Surgical harnesses robotic technologies to enhance human capability. Better surgery, faster and more precise, is the main benefit, whilst also reducing the time and cost of operations.

You lie on the hospital bed, wheeled along corridors towards a date with your heart surgeon. As the doors of the operating theatre swing open, you are met by the bright lights and gadgetry. Sedated, your eye scans the room for the cheery surgeon in his green gown, maybe putting on his mask and reassuring you that everything will be fine.

Instead you see a gleaming $2.5 million, multi-limbed machine. This is da Vinci, your robotic surgeon, now operating with more precision, speed and efficiency than is humanly possible, in over 2500 hospitals around the world. Relax. As the anaesthetic now kicks in, you are in safe hands, of sorts.

In fact the surgeon is (currently) still part of the procedure, sitting with a computer interface that shows a 3D image of your body’s interior, using a joystick instead of his forceps and scalpel.

The $50,000 endoscopic camera helps the surgeon navigate through the body, as if playing a computer game. An array of diagnostic and operating tools are available, either with manual or intuitive controls. Surgeons quickly learn to finesse the new instruments, although it could be argued that a game-playing teenager might be even better at handling the controls.

Intuitive Surgical develops and builds the robotic da Vinci systems from its base in Sunnyvale, California. It brings together experts experience as diverse as NASA’s ability to operate the space station from Earth, and more traditional hands-on surgeons. Innovations in components, and the software that supports it, are developing fast.  A new fluorescent imaging system is able to quickly identify cancer, whilst a new portable da Vinci system can be placed on a table, and operated with the help of a Microsoft Kinect gaming set.

The benefits are huge – the procedure is better, because the surgeon combine his own skill and judgement, with the precise movements and instruments of the machine – but also faster and cheaper, with many operations possible by accessing the body through a small belly-button insertion which enables much faster procedures and patient recovery.

Having originally been developed under contract to the US Army for battlefield surgery, da Vinci is becoming available, and mostly preferred, by surgeons worldwide. With investments of almost £3 billion, Intuitive is now generating annual revenues over $500m and growing.

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