Electromagnetic Control Could Pull Surgery Into the Future

The rise of minimally invasive robotic surgery means smaller scars and fewer chances of infection for patients, and greater dexterity and precision for doctors, but one problem sticks out.

Or rather, it sticks in: that big robot arm, with joints and links that don’t fit neatly inside the body, particularly for small or delicate surgeries like eye operations or pediatric hernia repair.

A UMD mechanical engineering researcher is “disarming” surgery robots in pioneering work to move tools inside the body with only an electromagnetic field. Assistant Professor Yancy Diaz-Mercado and collaborators have used magnetism to steer a tiny needle to penetrate and suture in various test materials, including animal tissue—a complex problem of robotic control and vision he likens to “finding a needle in a bloody haystack.”

Such techniques might not even require surgeons to cut into a patient at all; the tools are injectable. “It’s truly ultra-minimally invasive, with less trauma and faster recovery,” says Diaz-Mercado, who is affiliated with the Maryland Robotics Center and Institute for Systems Research.

The next steps include refining innovative means to push small, light implements through tissue with more force—one invention works like a tiny hammer—and exploiting variations in magnetic field shapes generated by their equipment to simultaneously control multiple, independent surgical tools.


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