The need for highly secure, low latency, and electromagnetically non-intrusive communication systems within hospitals, especially in robotic surgery rooms, makes the use of LiFi in healthcare a perfect technological fit.
If you had a critical health condition that required surgery, would you be open to being operated upon by a robot? A nearly decade-old survey found more than half the respondents to be comfortable with robotic surgery. But they had one condition: the surgeon had to be present in the room during the procedure. Today, with continued progress in robotics and the development of effective surgery robots like the da Vinci surgical system, robotic surgery, or more precisely, robot-assisted surgery is gaining increasing mainstream acceptance. And why wouldn’t it? From increased precision to minimized post-surgery complications, robotic surgery offers numerous benefits to both medical professionals and patients. However, we may still be some way from having robots that can perform surgery fully independently and patients willing to fully trust such systems. For now, we have quite a few technological hurdles that line up our path towards building fully autonomous surgical robots. And the combined use of emerging technologies to address these challenges can take us closer to the dream of improved public health without adding to the already-high surgeon burnout rates. One of the technologies that can help us take a step towards complete autonomy in robotic surgery is LiFi.
What is LiFi Technology?
Most existing communication methods -- from long-range satellites to short-distance Wi-Fi -- transmit data in the form of invisible electromagnetic radio waves. These waves fall outside the range of frequencies that our eyes can perceive, i.e., the visible light spectrum, but can be picked up by the devices we use to communicate, such as our cell phones and TV antennae. LiFi, or Light Fidelity communication, on the other hand, uses visible light as its channel for transmitting data.
Simply explained, LiFi technology transmits data with the help of LED bulbs that can transmit light with varying intensity. The intensity of the light emitted can be varied within extremely short intervals of time. Data is transmitted in the form of these varying light signals that are picked up by a photoreceiver at the opposite end of the network which, contrary to popular misconception, does not necessarily require a direct line of sight from the transmitter.
LiFi is more efficient at transmitting data and can offer greater bandwidth than most existing modes of data transfer. It is also said to be more secure and less prone to hacking and interference than other modes of communication, making it more reliable for places where quick, uninhibited communication is of the essence, like hospitals.
How Can LiFI Take Us Closer To Fully Automated Robotic Surgery?
Robotic surgery requires highly dexterous robots that can perform surgical procedures in a minimally invasive manner. This is regardless of whether these robots are operated remotely by human surgeons (which is the most common method used today) or whether they are completely automated with the help of more advanced versions of AI. The robot must be able to perform the surgical procedure with, well...surgical precision. To be able to do so, it is critical for the system to possess:
- Real-time visibility into the condition of the patient through MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) and other non-invasive imaging methods, and
- A low-latency control mechanism that can quickly transmit control signals to the robotic actuators either from the operating surgeon or the controlling AI in response to the changes in the patient’s condition (as displayed by the imaging system).
While a human surgeon may possess both these capabilities to analyze and act with precision in real-time, it is hard to impart them to a robot. What’s more challenging is enabling the robotic system to use both these abilities simultaneously.
The Problem with Present-Day Robotic Surgery
While MRI provides surgeons, human or otherwise, with detailed visual information on internal soft-tissue structure, it cannot be used simultaneously with a robotic, or for that matter, any electronic component. That is because the strong electromagnetic field that it generates to provide the aforementioned precise imaging can interfere with the functioning of any electronic device, such as the network that sends controlling signals to the robotic actuators. This can potentially lead to inaccurate diagnostic information and also impact the functioning of the electronically-controlled robotic equipment.
To prevent any mishaps due to this interference, MRI-guided surgery robots can either capture intraoperative images or perform an action at any given time. So, when these robots capture an image, the arms must be turned off. Similarly, when the arms are in motion, the imaging is turned off. As a result, such systems are unable to perform real-time manipulation based on accurate intraoperative imaging offered by MRI.
The Role of LiFi in Enabling Safer Robotic Surgery
In addition to offering low latency communication capabilities, LiFi has a property that is unique -- it does not interfere with strong electromagnetic fields, such as those produced by the MRI machine. By using a control system that transmits signals in the form of visible light can potentially ensure that the robot can act based on real-time MRI information instead of that generated a few seconds ago. This can enable robotic surgeries to be performed with greater accuracy and make such surgeries significantly safer.
A LiFi based controlling mechanism can not only help human surgeons by offering them real-time visuals but also help us take a step towards making fully automated AI-based surgery robots. While, of course, there might be better alternatives to this approach, this does raise hope regarding the future of AI in healthcare. Similarly, LiFi’s ability to operate without interfering with not just MRI scanners but other medical equipment also makes it a useful technology to be a part of the future of the healthcare industry.
What are Other Applications of LiFi in Healthcare?
The most obvious application of LiFi is to create internal communication networks within healthcare facilities. Since a lot of medical equipment at hospitals is sensitive to electromagnetic radiation, using LiFi as a non-interfering medium of communication can ensure that critical equipment remains safe and optimally functional while also allowing high-speed communication between the critical units within the hospital. This can replace Wi-Fi systems that communicate using radio waves that can potentially damage equipment and adversely affect patient outcomes.
Moreover, LiFi-based communication networks also provide higher bandwidths than other technologies, making them highly scalable and better equipped for emergencies like disasters and pandemics.
Making fully autonomous robotic surgery a reality will take some time, owing primarily to the gap that exists between today’s technology and the kind of technology that would make robotic surgery as safe as -- if not safer than -- surgery performed by human doctors. To overcome this, there should be a continued effort to incorporate supplementary technologies like LiFi in healthcare. Once the technological hurdle is crossed, the next step will be to build not just the patients’ trust in and comfort with fully automated surgeries but also gain the acceptance of the same by the global healthcare community. And this is where awareness of the immense benefits of AI-driven robotic surgery among the patients (higher surgery success rates, lower post-surgery costs, shorter rehabilitation periods), as well as surgeons (shorter surgery times, higher patient throughput, and lower risk of stress and burnout), will play a key role.
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