Robot-assisted surgery has a number of advantages over traditional surgery – it’s steadier, more precise, less invasive, plus the surgeon doesn’t even have to be in the same room (or continent) as the patient. One of its drawbacks, however, is the fact that surgeons can’t feel any of the resistance put up by the patients’ tissues – essentially, the controls provide no sense of touch. To address this problem, Linda van den Bedem from Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e) has created a prototype surgical robot that does provide tactile feedback, and its name is Sofie... or Surgeon’s Operating Force-feedback Interface Eindhoven.

Sofie is controlled via joysticks on a control panel, which become harder or easier to move, depending on how much pressure the robotic surgical instruments are exerting against the patients’ tissues. Such a system could be particularly useful for tasks such as making sutures, as it should give surgeons a better sense of how tightly they’re pulling the thread.

Van den Bedem’s creation is also more compact than most surgical robots, and is mounted on the operating table instead of the floor. This means that when the table is tilted or moved within the room, Sofie will move with it, so no readjustments will be necessary.

TU/e has patented the force-feedback system, and van den Bedem is now looking into commercializing Sofie. She anticipates it will be at least five years before the robot is available for purchase.