UCLA’s Dr. Jacob Rosen discusses his EXO-UL8 exoskeleton and Raven, a teleoperation system that could one day facilitate surgery for sick or injured space travelers.
Once all the straps are tied, he asks if I’m ready. I nod and tense my muscles. They engage with the wearable robotic system so I can go through therapy designed for patients recovering from a stroke. I move one of my hands into the indicated position on the screen in front of me, followed by the other one. The exoskeleton applies force to assist me with the task.
The system is the brainchild of Dr. Jacob Rosen, Director of the Bionics Lab and professor of medical robotics in the department. We sat down after the test to discuss how this exoskeleton—and Raven, his other robotic systems—are transforming the worlds of medicine, and beyond. Here are edited and condensed excerpts from our conversation.
Firstly, tell us the background of your research.
My research efforts are focused on medical robotics, and in particular, robotic systems and applications in rehabilitation medicine surgery. There are not enough professional healthcare providers to support an increasing demand for high-quality services for an aging population with an extended life span. Automation, as well as robotics, will play a major role.
How is your exoskeleton system part of this?
There are potentially two roles for the exoskeleton system which you tried today. The first is to use it as an assistive device that one wears all day, which, without them, one cannot function. The second role is to use it as a rehabilitation device, in a clinical setting aiming to recover lost function—either motor control due to neuromuscular trauma, or function and mobility due to trauma to the joints. Our primary research effort, with the upper limb exoskeleton at the Bionics Lab, is part of a collaborative effort with the Ronald Reagan Medical Center here at UCLA, and focused on recovering motor function following a stroke.
There’s also a neuroscience component to it, right?
Yes, there’s a secondary effort to understand the neuroplasticity mechanisms of the brain—a process by which the brain establishes new neural connections lost due to trauma, and recovers lost sensory, motor, or cognitive functions.
How is your exoskeleton different from other forms of tech-based therapies we’ve seen being trialed now or other exoskeleton systems?
I’ve led the development of four generations of upper limb exoskeletons systems in my academic career—most recently here at UCLA. The EXO-UL8is one of the most advanced upper-limb exoskeleton systems of its kind, and includes two single DOF (degrees of freedom) hands enabling power grasping.
Let’s talk about Raven, your other medical robotics venture.
I was involved in developing algorithms that can objectively assess surgical skill using data collected from instrumented surgical tools. Through our modeling approach, we show that surgery has the same components as “human language,” with noticeable signatures of movement which are skill dependent. This quantitative knowledge of surgery provided us a profound insight into the requirements that we need to meet for developing a surgical robot.
The core of the Raven system architecture is teleoperation, which allows a physical separation between the surgeon, along with the surgical cockpit, and the surgical arms themselves. The distance may be few meters where both the surgeon and the surgical robotic arms are in the same operating room. Or across the globe, where thousands of kilometers separate the two.
And, importantly, Raven, is open source.
We realized that the only way to promote our own research ideas in surgical robotics, as well as to provide a stable research platform to other research groups, was to develop an open-source surgical robotics system. This was the primary incentive for developing Raven and its accompanied surgical cockpit. We spun off Applied Dexterity Inc. to sell Raven as a research platform for non-human use, and there are currently 18 Raven systems operational across the world.
But these are primarily used in research still, is that correct?
The research we are doing now is at least a decade out from what is being used in hospitals today in a clinical setting. Medicine is a very conservative field for a good reason—human life is at stake. Obtaining an FDA approval for using a surgical robot such as Raven with human subjects would require an investment of about $100 million. However, the beauty of algorithms is that they are independent of the hardware involved. Once a successful algorithm is developed for automating a surgical task, it can be adopted by any surgical robotic platform.
Raven made a fictional appearance in space in Ender’s Game. Is that one of the potential use cases IRL?
Extreme environments, such as military battlefields, as well as deep space, are testing grounds for these technologies. In these environments, humans may be injured, and their life is at risk, but the medical and surgical expertise is likely to be thousand of kilometers away. All of our studies indicate that there are no technological barriers to deliver high-quality healthcare in places that they don’t yet exist, in extreme environments.
Will your system go out into space?
It’s likely that when astronauts are sent on deep space missions, a robotic system will fly with them. Even if one of the astronauts is also a surgeon, it is unlikely that he/she will be proficient in all surgical procedures, so surgical robotic arms will be a critical component aboard the spaceship. The system will also have AI embedded within it, because there’s no way to tele-operate at that distance from Earth due to communication time delays.
Can you get specific about any NASA-related projects?
At Applied Dexterity Inc. we’ve just completed a phase one NASA-funded research project which will allow NASA scientists, located in any one of the NASA centers on earth, to teleoperate a Raven surgical robot system on board the ISS.
Dr. Jacob Rosen will be speaking at TEDx Palo Alto on April 29.
By S.C. Stuart April 21, 2018 7:00AM EST