A future built by robotsLately, we have read some articles about robotic surgery. The titles include, “Doctor Robot Operates on 500 Patients in Two Years” and “Robot Performs Remote Surgery via Internet.”
The first article illustrates that Korean medical staff are good at using foreign robots and that surgical robots are in demand in Korea. The second article is about a successful remote surgery that used domestic technology and involved a collaboration between robotic engineers, medical staff and surgical robots.
We have grown familiar with the word robot. Koreans know just as much about robots as people from other countries. Many are well informed about androids, home robots and cleaning robots. The robot market has grown drastically and diversified in the 21st century, and along with defense robots, the market for medical robots is growing rapidly.
Surgical robots are the most notable type of medical robots. In abdominal surgeries, a robotic arm with a diameter of less than 1 centimeter requires a smaller incision than a human arm, and the fast and flexible robotic arm performs the surgery as directed by the medical staff. A robotic arm is also far more precise in operations on bone joints than human hands.
Medical robots are also helpful in rehabilitation. The demand for rehab robots is growing with improvements in the quality of life and aging of society. Robotic aides to walking and prosthetic limbs are connected to the human nerve system and can be controlled at will.
The third kind is the micro robots such as the capsule-type endoscope for diagnosis of problems in the digestive system. Development of a microrobot to treat blood vessel illness has commenced in Korea. These robots are easy to use, thanks to the collaboration of microengineering and medical technology.
Also, surgery simulators are used to train medical staff. For example, a pregnant robot used in a simulated delivery changes its face, blood pressure and pulse depending on the treatment by the doctor. Lastly, there are robots providing remote medical services, such as a mobile guide robot that can treat patients no matter where the doctors are.
The United States is the unmatched leader in medical robotics. Many prototypes have only recently been introduced in Korea, and citizens are increasingly interested in medical robots. The government has designated intelligent robotics as one of Korea’s growth engine industries and is providing strategic assistance. However, the robots that have been developed so far are the low-priced ones such as cleaning robots, toy robots and educational robots. If the cleaning robots and toy robots are consumer goods, medical robots can be called “premium robots.” While a cleaning robot is priced at 250 dollars, a robot for abdominal surgery can cost as much as 2.5 million dollars, about 10,000 times the domestic robot. Simply put, surgical robots can generate 10,000 times more profit than domestic ones. To be a leader in the international robot market Korea must take a share of the premium robot industry.
In order to get into the medical robot market, we need to develop domestic robots. We already have a constant supply of outstanding talents in robotics, both in engineering and medicine. The government needs to aggressively support the domestic development of medical robots. Aside from the technological development, the government should adjust the licensing and approval standards to accommodate high-tech products and new industries since the medical robots can only be released into the market with government approval.
The infrastructure for Korea’s medical equipment industry is surprisingly weak. If we apply the outstanding domestic robotics technology to medical equipment, the vulnerable medical equipment industry would get a boost. And we need citizens and medical specialists to trust domestic technology and prefer Korean robots that have a competitive edge in price.
Professor Na Gun-ho is so good at robotic surgery that he received invitations from abroad after only two years or practice. Doctor Lee Chun-taek has performed 2,500 joint operations using robots, a world record. If these outstanding Korean doctors use local robots instead of foreign ones, these surgeries will have an even more special meaning. The government should back these efforts.
*The writer is a professor of mechanical system engineering at Chonnam National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Park Jong-oh