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“Improving robotic surgery”

Dorsey Standish, 2009, Engineering

For my PURM project, my mentor, Dr. Katherine Kuchenbecker, set a goal of improving the quality of robotic surgery. Delving into this medical application of mechanical engineering allowed me to collaborate with PhD students Will McMahan and Joe Romano as well as Masters student Jamie Gewirtz. I even got the chance to mentor a high school student, Jared Katz, who spent six weeks working in the Haptics Lab this summer. In collaboration with these other students, I investigated ways to improve Intuitive Surgical’s da Vinci System, a robot used for minimally invasive urological and cardiac surgery. We aimed to give the surgeon improved tactile feedback; our research’s tagline became “Feel what you see.” Surgeons who use the da Vinci currently depend solely on visual feedback while they are operating. Therefore, my goal was to apply previous research by Dr. Kuchenbecker’s students in order to add tactile feedback to the da Vinci system. I needed to create a da Vinci attachment capable of producing sensations that would let the doctor know what the robot was touching. But I couldn’t just jump into designing the part for the surgeon’s handle—first, I read Dr. Kuchenbecker’s research proposals, perused websites about medical robotics, and even visited Johns Hopkins University to take pictures of and test out their da Vinci. Acquiring this background knowledge ensured that I truly understood the project.
In this way, I approached the task like a professional engineer and was prepared to take the next step. I used SolidWorks, a computer aided design program, to design my first prototypes. I researched and purchased the necessary materials for my system, including several different actuators; flexible, thin wire; fasteners; bearings; springs; and a power supply. We tested extensively using the da Vinci robots at Glenolden, a Penn research and training facility about thirty minutes outside of Philadelphia, and at Presbyterian Hospital. My coworkers and I even collaborated with Dr. David Lee, a prominent urological surgeon at Penn. He gave us invaluable feedback that led us to shape our current system, which we named “VerroTouch” after da Vinci’s first teacher, Verrochio. Since the project has been so successful, Dr. Kuchenbecker is heading our efforts to publish a paper and possibly license the VerroTouch system to Intuitive Surgical, the company behind the da Vinci system. I think that working with Dr. Kuchenbecker’s Haptics Lab this summer has been the best experience I could ask for, especially as a freshman. I’ve enjoyed my project so much that I’m going to continue working on the VerroTouch system during the upcoming year. The PURM program has given me practical skills in mechanical engineering and has led me to consider a career in research after graduation. I want to give a special thanks to Dr. Kuchenbecker and CURF for a wonderful summer.

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