MR robotics at AIST

After the ICRA conference, we managed to get an exclusive tour to the AIST lab's main campus in Tsukuba, north from Tokyo.
AIST (National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology) is one of the biggest research institutes in Japan. It’s spread at 10 locations, with headquarters in Tokyo and Tsukuba. There are approximately 2500 full-time researchers, young professionals are only involved as post-docs and above. Their annual budget is around 100 billion yen (1 billion USD). AIST’s mission statement is to provide:
- Contribution to a sustainable society
- Contribution to industrial competitiveness
- Contribution to local deployment of industrial policies
- Contribution of policy-making of industrial technology
- Contribution to development of human resources skilled in technological management
AIST research portfolio is organized to seven branches from nanotechnology and materials to metrology and measurement science. There are 22 institutes, 23 research centers, and a few research initiatives, cores and centers for intellectual infrastructure.
We visited two groups (out of the 14) within the Institute for Human Science and Biomedical Engineering that aims to promote healthy longevity and a higher quality of life through development. Even though Japan has not really embraced yet surgical robotic technology, they still spend significant money on the topic, and due to their superiority in robotics, achieved great results. Currently there are only 5 da Vinci robots in Japan, all in research labs, as the public health care system does not allow for their easy financial integration. (3/4 of all procedures are payed by the government.) Rumor has it Intuitive is applying for the health authorities' approval for the robot, to be able to sell it for private clinics.
First, we were given a tour by Dr. Chinzei, leader of the Surgical Assist Technology Group. Their main focus is on improving image guided procedures, microsurgery, small scale haptic sensors and surgical performance evaluation. In the mid 1990’s they were among the firsts to develop MR compatible robots. Their first prototype was meant to fit into GE’s 3T double donut scanner. However it was still too expensive and bulky to get beyond clinical trials, and also GE discontinued that product line. (A few devices are still for sale.) The next generation of the robot used an inverted RCM mechanics with a parallel robot. Their newest version is a little smaller, 5 DOF needle insertion assisting robot (for endonasal procedures), integrated with a flat- Mitsubishi scanner. They are also developing an MR robot for micromanipulation, a force sensor for extended needle tip sensing and working together with another group on surgeons’ skill evaluation
Next, we visited the Skill Research Group, were they have developed a very detailed plastic skull phantom for endonasal training. They are experimenting with telementoring and effective teaching and evaluation through video-feedback. As for skill evaluation, they measure the applied forces to assess the possible damage caused. This could help to better understand the details of surgical procedures.
Third, we met some French people from ICRA, and they showed us their joint AIST/ISRI-CNRS/STIC lab, within the Research Division of Advanced Robotics and Cybernetics. They are working on human robots, developing hardware for the next generation of the HRP-2 robot (currently industrial secret), and improving the motion and cognitive skills of the existing version.


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