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“I want to build medical robots that others really want to use.”

Georg Rauter demonstrates a robotic arm
Collaborative medical robots should enable collision-free, intuitive and easy operation even of heavy equipment even over long periods of time. Prof. Dr. Georg Rauter demonstrates a project of his team members Murali Karnam and Dr. Nicolas Gerig. (Photo: University of Basel, Eleni Kougionis)

Georg Rauter develops micro robots as tools for brain surgeons and dentists, and for operations on bones. He wants to establish Basel as a hub for medical robotics thanks to his collaborations with researchers in Switzerland and around the world.

14 March 2023 | Angelika Jacobs

Georg Rauter demonstrates a robotic arm
Collaborative medical robots should enable collision-free, intuitive and easy operation even of heavy equipment even over long periods of time. Prof. Dr. Georg Rauter demonstrates a project of his team members Murali Karnam and Dr. Nicolas Gerig. (Photo: University of Basel, Eleni Kougionis)

Professor Rauter, what would be the perfect robot that you would like to develop in the course of your research career?

I’d like to answer that with an anecdote. I had a pivotal moment while I was studying for my doctorate at ETH Zurich. At the time, I developed a robotic rowing simulator for people to learn rowing. The system “feels” and analyzes the rower’s motions, notices where errors occur, and provides personalized feedback, both visually and by physically guiding the trainee towards the perfect technique. It also plays sounds to instruct the correct timing of the movements. This means the robot teaches the human trainee in a similar way as a human coach. What made it special was that we were able to prove that a robot can autonomously teach a complex motor task to a human being. Personalized automated feedback was even able to speed up the learning process.

What came out of that?

We used the drive and control concept from the rowing simulator to create a rehabilitation robot that is now on the market under the name “The FLOAT.” The system looks a little like  a climbing harness, suspended from the ceiling. It helps people practice overground walking. “The FLOAT” passively follows the patients, but provides support if required and catches them if they fall.

Why was that a pivotal moment?

I once went back to Balgrist University Hospital, where we’d set up the first system. Of course, the therapists there didn’t remember me and explained to me the operational principle and the advantages of “The FLOAT” compared to conventional gait rehabilitation on a treadmill, without knowing that I had developed the system. It was great to see that my research hadn’t just got me publications; that I had actually developed a robot that others can and really want to use.

And to come back to the question of the perfect robot: what would it have to be able to do?

That depends on what exactly is needed. My intention is to provide devices that fulfill the eventual users’ need. They might need it for research into cell biology, rehab robotics or laser surgery. My research group mainly develops micro robots. We really do follow the entire process from idea to product. It’s unusual in academic research to be there from beginning to end. During the whole process, we always work in close collaboration with the users, particularly those in the medical field.

Can you give us an example of a system that you are currently working on?

For example, there is a minimally invasive system for surgery that can cut bones with laser light. This micro robot is intended to be as sensitive as a human finger, very nimble, and equipped with good optics. At the same time, we want to make it as easy as possible for surgeons to use. Whatever the system can do by itself, it should do by itself. For example, the user might say to the system: “This is the right place, now cut the bone right here.” They wouldn’t need to specify every back-and-forth movement of the laser while it was cutting. But, although our microrobot can do a lot independently, it remains a tool and not a replacement for surgeons. I like to say that I build stupid robots for smart people.

When it comes to robotics research, many people think of Zurich and Lausanne. Are you working in isolation here in Basel?

No, we are very well connected and collaborate successfully with other centers in Switzerland and around the world.  With our medical micro robots, which measure between 0.1 and 2 centimeters, we complete the Swiss robotics landscape. We are unique worldwide in the field of robotic laser surgery, and maintain partnerships with industry, research, and medicine.

How do you find the research environment in Basel?

We’re very close to the users here. The very fact that we are embedded right in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Basel is a great advantage. The direct interaction with colleagues with a medical background allows us to bring our medical micro robots into use within very short time. For example, we cooperate closely with the University Children’s Hospital Basel (UKBB) and the University Hospital of Basel. These are very fruitful projects in which the clinicians put information on their precise needs and data at our disposal, so we can use this information to develop prototypes, and then we test these prototypes with their help.

Georg Rauter with a neuroendoscope and a 3D model of the brain
Georg Rauter explains the advantages of the flexible robotic neuroendoscope of his PhD student Lorin Fasel. (Photo: University of Basel, Eleni Kougionis)

Can you give an example?

For instance, we’re working with the neurosurgeon Professor Raphael Guzman from the University Hospital to develop a neuroendoscope that has several joints, is easy to maneuver and whose rigidity can be modified. Where you don’t want to damage the tissue, the endoscope softens. Where it needs to go into action effectively, it hardens. It needs to behave similarly to a human finger and also give haptic feedback; in other words, to convey to the surgeon the nature of the tissue.

What’s the approximate time frame for something like that to reach the market?

To get from the initial concept to a market-ready product, we estimate about 10 years. You have to consider that there are many stages of development behind that: requirement analysis, design, prototype, test, new prototype, test, and so on. With our rehab robot “The FLOAT,” we managed to get the machine to market within about six years.

So Basel offers a lot of opportunities for collaboration. What’s the situation beyond Basel?

Thanks to the Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research Robotics (NCCR Robotics), which was financed by the Swiss National Science Foundation, roboticists in Switzerland were able to network effectively. However, the program ended in November 2022 after 12 years, and we are now trying to further expand the collaboration between roboticists in Switzerland with a national network called NTN Innovation Booster Robotics, supported by Innosuisse. The participants don’t just come from the realm of academic research, but also from industry. It would also be good if politicians were more strongly represented in the network, to make them more aware of what is needed in robotics generally, and of course in medical robotics specifically.

What would it take for Basel to become better known publicly as a center for robotics?

To the research community, Basel is certainly well known as a center of robotics research. We are working on successfully bringing systems into the clinic so that, when the people of Switzerland hear the word “robotics,” Basel springs to their mind just as readily as Zurich or Lausanne, for example.

Georg Rauter

has been Associate Professor for Surgical Robotics at the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Basel since March 2022. Previously, from 2016, he held an assistant professorship within the MIRACLE project (Minimally Invasive Robot-Assisted Computer-guided LaserosteotomE), which was financed by the Werner Siemens Foundation for five years. He regularly offers guided tours through his laboratory for those who are interested.
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