Robots named Socrates, Aesop and Zeus could make life easier for surgical patients.

Tiny robots built by Yulun Wang, a former UCSB electrical and computer engineering professor, are giving doctors a new and safer tool to operate with. In 1989, Wang founded Computer Motion, a high-tech robotics company based in Goleta, with grants from auto manufacturers and government agencies. In 1991, the company found its niche designing the first robots for minimally invasive surgery, or “laparoscopy,” allowing surgeons to operate on patients without making an incision.

The process works with a small tube containing a camera and surgical tools, which is inserted into the digestive tract, prostate, or the heart through the body’s natural pathways, rather than by cutting a patient open. The surgeon performs the operation while watching a TV screen connected to the camera. In some surgeries, such as heart surgery, a patient is poked with several holes to allow the tube to be inserted. Each of the holes is roughly the size of a person’s pinky finger, very small in comparison to the incisions necessary in invasive surgery. Besides cost, a second advantage to patients undergoing laparoscopy is recovery time.

“The surgeon is not creating huge trauma to the patient to get access to the surgical site,” Wang said. “So by doing minimally invasive surgery, the patient gets better much faster.”

Computer Motion’s first successful product was Aesop, a remote-control camera used in laparoscopy. It was licensed by the FDA in December of 1993, and was the first robot ever to gain FDA clearance. Originally intended only for use in simple procedures, Aesop has undergone many changes in the past seven years and is now used even in advanced heart surgery procedures.

Aesop, like all Computer Motion products, is voice controlled. The camera shifts and moves in response to vocal commands given by the surgeon. The software that makes this possible was also developed by Computer Motion and is called Hermes.

“Hermes is our voice interface to these systems, and [its introduction] was something of a milestone because it was the first FDA-cleared voice control system in the operating room,” Wang said.

Computer Motion’s latest products are robots named Zeus and Socrates.

Socrates is another robotic laparoscopy camera. Unlike Aesop, Socrates can be controlled with a remote control from thousands of miles away, and makes it possible for an expert to assist a surgeon performing an operation by controlling the camera. In addition to pointing the camera, the expert surgeon can further assist the local surgeon to point out vital areas by drawing on the television screen using a special stylus pad. This method of drawing on the television screen is called “telestration” and has been used for years by football announcers.

Wang’s other robot, Zeus, includes robotic surgical tools that a surgeon operates by remote control, in addition to a camera. The robot follows the movements of the doctor’s hands on the controller, allowing for extreme precision. This kind of fine control expands the possibilities of minimally invasive surgery to include more complex procedures than previously possible. Zeus is not yet FDA-approved, but has successfully undergone over 100 clinical trials.

Wang earned his doctorate at UCSB and was advised by ECE Professor Steven Butner.

“Yulun was always highly motivated and imaginative,” Butner said. “His enthusiasm infected others and when he finished his Ph.D, he wanted to start his own company immediately.”

Wang taught in the ECE Dept. while he attempted to sell his Ph.D project – a control system for advanced robots. Selling the system to manufacturers proved a difficult task.

“The project was essentially a solution looking for a problem,” Butner said. “Wang then learned to turn the relationship around, to identify problems in need of solution and then use his creativity and his engineering and people skills to create successful products.”

In the midst of a national recession, Wang identified a problem. “Healthcare costs were going up and up and up and there was no end in sight,” Wang said. “We have an aging population and that’s where the money is going. So if there were technologies, which could be used to curb those costs, that would be a good thing and would be very valuable to society. I had all the ingredients to push forward and make a market opportunity out of that.”

Combining the technologies of Zeus and Socrates may also prove to be a fruitful venture. The concept of telesurgery – remotely controlled surgery over large distances – has long been attractive to the medical industry. Wang said Computer Motion plans have a telesurgery demonstration later this year.

Butner, a technical consultant for Computer Motion, called Wang and the company the world leader in medical robotics.

“We will see many more advances in tools and techniques for minimally invasive surgery,” Butner said, “and in operating room automation coming from this company in the years ahead.”