UCF grad students developing robot to help with precise surgical procedures

By Julie Gargotta, Reporter
Last Updated: Saturday, April 08, 2017, 7:00 AM EDT

A group of college students is working to develop a robot that could revolutionize the medical industry.

  • UCF grad students developing medical robot
  • AVRA Medical Robotics invested $200,000 in UCF-led project 
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"I think over time, the doctors will find devices like this will be indispensable," said Zhihua Qu, a professor who is leading the group of graduate students at the University of Central Florida. "Now, we turn them loose to develop the software in the next stage of the hardware."

The robot is intended to assist doctors in performing precise medical procedures. Doctors will input start and endpoint markers on the human body, and the robot will follow instructions.

"Now, more and more, we want robots to be able to do different tasks that are not necessarily precisely predefined," said Qu, who is the UCF department chair for electrical engineering. "In this particular case, it's a medical doctor who is not engineering trained and nonetheless able to use the robot for medical procedures."

AVRA Medical Robotics invested $200,000 in the UCF-led project, with plans for follow-up funding. The university said AVRA will pay UCF 1 percent in royalty fees for annual sales exceeding $20 million resulting from the intellectual property.

The partnership with AVRA has been seven years in the making, only now coming to fruition due to the hours of dedication from college students.

Sweat equity

In an inconspicuous room tucked away in one of the campus' engineering buildings, two graduate students toil over equations on a large whiteboard. They then sit at side-by-side computers and run over simulations.

"We're trying to get the error to as low as possible — to zero," Deepalakshmi Babuvenkateswaran said.

Babuvenkateswaran, a 27-year-old graduate student in her second semester, is studying computer engineering and specializing in robotics.

"I want to be a robotics engineer. I wanted to put something I know into an application," she said. "When you start with something, it gets to you. It keeps getting interesting."

Niladri Basu Bal echoes Babuvenkateswaran's reasoning.

"I always wanted to study robotics, build robots," said Basu Bal, 25. “When you start with it, you have a concept in your mind, but you don't know if you'll get there or not."

For 20 hours each week for the last few months, the students have worked to develop an algorithm and to design the end effector, a device that will attach to the end of the robot's arm.

"This is one of the biggest projects I’ve worked until now in my whole studying career," Basu Bal said.

Years ago, AVRA and UCF began working on autonomous robotics systems, designing an intelligent robot that could work with a human operator. In April 2016, they established a formal project, aiming to build and design a robotic device able to carry out cosmetic surgery.

Now, students envision the robot assisting in an even greater capacity: They envision dropping down pods with the robot inside into crisis zones — perhaps after a hurricane — to assist in emergency care.

"You can literally deploy this robot any place, in any part of the planet, and a doctor can remote perform the surgery sitting at his office," Basu Bal said.

It will be another two years until that happens. As the grad students work to finish the robot’s brain, they're grappling with the magnitude of the project.

"This is a big deal, this is a pretty big deal," Babuvenkateswaran said.

"We have outstanding students, and I think they are the future workforce," Qu said. "And while they're studying, they can already make a contribution."

(Julie Gargotta, staff)