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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
Decisions regarding the specific technology to be used, and at what point in the process this will occur, will be part of the two-year development stage, DeRose explains. But in general, the system will allow for the automated collection of tools and their delivery to the sterile processing center following surgery, sorting, cleaning, sanitization, kit building and sterilization, followed by storage and then delivery of the sterile tool kits to doctors as needed again within the OR. There are likely to be humans working along with the automated solution, she adds. RFID could help ensure that the correct tools are in the proper kit when undergoing specific processes, and could also be used to help guide a robotic delivery service as it transports the tools between storage and the operating room, or between the OR and the sterile processing center.

A robotic device on wheels could first pick up a kit filled with soiled tools post-surgery, and later return the kit and tools to the dirty side of the sterile processing center. GE plans to test a variety of scenarios, including a robot using RFID for path planning with a built-in reader and tags deployed around a facility to help guide its movements. In a YouTube video posted by GE Global Research, DeRose demonstrates a robot fitted with a Trimble ThingMagic reader and RFID antennas as an example of the sort of technology that could be utilized. Although several robots have been built for research purposes, DeRose notes, they are likely to look very different once completed.

In a YouTube video, DeRose shows a robot fitted with a Trimble ThingMagic reader and RFID antennas as an example of the sort of technology that could be used for the VA project.

Typically, multiple kits of tools are used for a particular procedure, and the tools leaving an operating room are thus not necessarily sorted into the proper kits at that time.

A stationary robotic arm could remove the soiled tools from the kits and—based on the type of instrument and the kind of cleaning process to thus receive—place each item on a conveyor. To identify the tool type, the system could employ a reader to capture the unique ID number encoded on a passive RFID tag affixed to that object. All tools undergo a wash, rinse and sanitization process, which could be accomplished via a robotic arm and specialized fixture. The ID number, stored in software developed by GE Global Research, could be linked to details about each item. The tools can then be directed on a conveyor to the required sanitation cycle, according to each tool's ID number. Once the tools are sanitized and dried, they would be moved to the clean side of the sterile processing center, for incorporation into kits. Based on the kit requirements indicated in the software, the robotic arms will then reconstruct the kits using the tool IDs to ensure that each kit is complete as required.

During the kits' reconstruction, DeRose envisions that an RFID tag attached to each kit will be linked in the software with the RFID numbers of tags on the specific tools within the kit. Using that data in the software, the system would then utilize personnel or robots to replace the proper instruments in the kits, after which the kits would be closed and sealed using a robotic arm and fixture. The sealed kits would then be sterilized in autoclaves, using steam at high temperature and pressure. (Sanitation removes proteins that might remain after washing, while sterilization kills any germs or microbes that may be inadvertently introduced as the kits are built.)

Following sterilization, the kits would be placed into inventory until required. Software could then store data about each process step completed for each tool, based on the tag reads during cleaning, sanitization, sterilization and inventory.

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