Medical Industry Proposes Levels of Automation for Medical Solutions

The automotive industry has its own levels of automation for autonomous cars. This time around, it is the medical industry that’s proposing its own levels of automation for medical solutions. In a paper published in the journal Science Robotics, leaders of the medical robotics industry have proposed six levels of autonomy for medical robots as possible framework for regulatory, ethical and legal considerations.

Level 0: No autonomy
This level refers to prosthetics devices or tele-operated robots that react to or follow the command of a user. A surgical robot with motion scaling is an example of this level as the output of this robot corresponds to the surgeon’s desired action.

Level 1: Robot Assistance
Robots in this level offer some mechanical assistance during a particular task, while the human continuously controls the system. Surgical robots with virtual fixtures are examples of this level.

Level 2: Task Autonomy
A robot belonging to this level is autonomous for specific tasks. The tasks, however, are initiated by a human. Surgical suturing is an example of this level. In surgical suturing, a surgeon pinpoints where a running suture should be placed, while the robot does the task autonomously. The surgeon in this case monitors and intervenes when necessary.

Level 3: Conditional Autonomy
A robot in level 3 performs task strategies. The robot, however, still depends on the human to choose from the different strategies or to approve a strategy that is autonomously selected.

Level 4: High Autonomy
A robot in this level can make medical decisions under the supervision of a qualified doctor. This medical robot is similar to a medical resident who performs a surgery under the supervision of an attending surgeon.

Level 5: Full Autonomy (No Human Intervention Needed)
A robot in this level – also known as “robotic surgeon” – can perform an entire surgical operation without human intervention. Robotic surgeon is still the realm of science fiction.

We are already at Level 3 for some devices and procedures, and therefore, the challenge will be in broadening the applications to more complex procedures and environments. As autonomous machines such as self-driving cars become commonplace, we anticipate that acceptance of risk from autonomous robots for medical applications will also increase,” the authors of the paper wrote.

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