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GE Announces Plans to Develop RFID-Guided Robots for Managing Surgical Tools

Scientists at GE Global Research will spend two years developing a prototype system for VA hospitals, using RFID to help automate the process of transporting, cleaning and storing surgical tools.
By Claire Swedberg
Feb 04, 2013Scientists at GE Global Research are working with the U.S. Department of Veteran's Affairs (VA) to develop an automated system for sorting, cleaning, sterilizing and transporting surgical tools at VA hospitals. The solution is expected to include several forms of robotics designed to move tools through the sterilization process, as well as to and from operating rooms, along with radio frequency identification technology to enable some of the functions, by identifying the locations of individual tools or kits filled with tools.

In 2011, the VA launched an initiative to reduce the incidence of errors in sterilizing surgical tools, in order to better protect patients from infection. The agency issued a request for proposals, and in September 2012, GE Global Research—the technology development division of General Electric Co.—won the $2.5 million contract with its plans to develop a system using what it calls a mash-up of technology that will be tested at a VA hospital in two years.

Lynn DeRose and a blue robotic vehicle that she and the team have named Tesla, and are considering using for kit delivery to the operating room

RFID is expected to be used to ensure that the proper tools are in the correct kits at various points throughout the sterilization processes, as well as to create a record of the processes completed on those tools.

GE Global Research's challenge is to replicate the hospitals' business processes, according to Lynn DeRose, the company's principal investigator on the project, which will take place at the firm's facility's in Niskayuna, N.Y. The solution will aim to automate the cleaning and sterilization procedures for surgical tools, without interfering with the OR staff's work processes. To this end, GE Global Research's scientists are initially working with research teams at the VA to determine what these exact processes are at a variety of facilities.

"Part of our effort is to develop sophisticated modules for improvement" of existing practices, says John Lizzi, the manager of GE Global Research's Distributed Intelligent Systems Laboratory, where the work will be conducted.

The solution will not only employ robotics to automate the cleaning and sterilization processes and to transport the tools, but it will also, in conjunction with automatic-identification technologies and computer vision, identify the specific tools undergoing the processes. Bar codes would not sustain sterilization, DeRose says, or be easily read when the tools are dirty and not in direct line of sight with a scanner; what's more, the system would require that tools be identified in a kit, even after that kit is sanitized and sealed.

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