UVA Engineering Ph.D. Student Applies Electrical Engineering Skills to Make Robotic Surgery More Intuitive

Kay Hutchinson, a University of Virginia Class of 2019 graduate and now Ph.D. student in electrical engineering, had a banner year in 2019-2020 by following this adage: “Know what you’re good at, be someone who can build something, and find people who complement your skill set.” 

Hutchinson put these words into action when she joined the research group led by Homa Alemzadeh, an assistant professor in UVA Engineering’s Charles L. Brown Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, who holds a courtesy appointment in the Department of Computer Science. Hutchinson and Alemzadeh met during the electrical and computer engineering capstone fair, when fourth-year undergraduates present their research projects to fellow students and faculty.

Hutchinson’s team designed and built a camera-guided robotic arm that attracted Alemzadeh’s attention. The arm identified a cup on a table, measured how much liquid the cup held, and refilled the cup with water. Hutchinson’s robotic arm could be adapted to hold the camera for robotic surgery, one of Alemzadeh’s primary research interests. Alemzadeh specializes in the design and validation of resilient cyber-physical systems, with applications in medical cyber-physical systems, surgical robots and autonomous systems.

“Kay’s capstone project caught my eye because it demonstrated her creativity and unique set of design and hands-on skills that are instrumental to the kind of research in surgical robotics,” Alemzadeh said. “I encouraged her to get involved with our research group and apply to our Ph.D. program and fellowships.” Hutchinson’s dream job is to become a robotic surgeon with a Ph.D. in electrical engineering.

Alemzadeh and Hutchinson found each other by following their passion and seeking out individuals with complementary skills.

Alemzadeh caught the computing bug in high school. She first wanted to pursue a career in graphic design and animation. Amazed by what the machines could do, Alemzadeh shifted her energy toward computer engineering. As an undergraduate, she studied computer hardware, testing digital circuits and embedded systems.

While earning her Ph.D. from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Alemzadeh focused on questions of safety and reliability of medical devices. Dr. Jaishankar “Jai” Raman, a cardiac surgeon then with the Rush University Medical Center, introduced Alemzadeh to the field of minimally invasive robotic surgery and encouraged her to look in more detail into the safety issues of such devices. Collaborating with Dr. Raman on a paper published in PLOS ONE, “Adverse Events in Robotic Surgery: A Retrospective Study of 14 Years of FDA Data,” Alemzadeh learned the strengths and weaknesses of state-of-the-art technology for robotic surgery.

Surgical robots offer greater dexterity and precision; smaller incisions reduce scarring, overall trauma and recovery time. Performance and safety of robotic surgery remains a concern, however, because the arm and camera function interdependently. A surgeon may need to change hands to adjust the robot’s camera, or two surgeons may need to work together, with one controlling the camera and another controlling the instruments. Both scenarios pose potential risks of poor coordination and cognitive overload.

While finishing up her bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, and sensitive to Alemzadeh’s research challenge, Hutchinson designed a smaller robot arm to hold a camera during surgery. Following her own advice to be a builder, Hutchinson created the robotic arm from scratch.

“Engineering is in my blood,” Hutchinson said. Both of her parents are engineers, and her dad taught her how to use tools and repair devices at an early age. Whereas Alemzadeh cut her teeth in Q-basic programming, Hutchinson started with a Radio Shack electronics kit, which she used to build a few circuits.

While in middle school, Hutchinson participated in Odyssey of the Mind, a creative problem-solving program. Hutchinson took on the challenge to build an aircraft that could go a distance, land on a spot and take off again, or drop an item on a certain spot. She built an airship held aloft by balloons, propelled by a motor and fan, and guided by a rudder. She earned the competition’s Ranatra Fusca Creativity Award for her design.

As a student at the Loudoun Academy of Science, a magnet high school in Northern Virginia, Hutchinson joined a robotics competition. The experience made her 100% percent sure she wanted a college degree in engineering, she said. Once enrolled at UVA, Hutchinson elected to major in electrical and computer engineering for its wide applicability and depth; her advisor was Andreas Beling, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering.

Hutchinson now helps Alemzadeh bridge the robotics and medical fields. A fellowship from the National Science Foundation’s Research Traineeship program, part of a grant awarded to the University of Virginia to build a cyber-physical systems graduate program, supports Hutchinson’s research, along with a UVA Engineering Dean’s Scholar fellowship.

Hutchinson’s knowledge of robotics complements Alemzadeh’s work in safety monitoring and testing for medical cyber-physical systems. “Surgical robots are among the most complex medical cyber-physical systems, with multiple human operators in the loop, closely controlling and operating these systems,” Alemzadeh said. “They face very interesting and unique challenges in terms of cyber-physical systems safety and security.”

Among her early successes as a Ph.D. student, Hutchinson has designed an autonomous closed-loop camera arm system for robotic surgery. This means the robotic arm can detect and autonomously respond to objects in the surgical field. It knows when and how to maintain the surgeon’s clear view of the instruments by adjusting its camera to zoom, pan or tilt. “The real value is that the surgeon doesn’t have to manually position the camera,” Hutchinson explained. “It takes in the whole surgical scene to react faster with fewer collisions.”

Hutchinson has co-authored a paper on her design with Alemzadeh, titled “A Reactive Autonomous Camera System for the RAVEN II Surgical Robot,” which she will present at the International Symposium on Medical Robotics in November 2020.

Hutchinson also works with other students in the Link Lab and robotic surgeons at the UVA Hospital to integrate her camera arm system with surgical simulators and include the system in robotic surgery training. A grant from UVA Engineering’s Center for Engineering in Medicine supports this effort to improve the safety of surgery by incorporating context-aware monitoring into simulation training. The group has recently authored a paper on this topic, titled “Real-time Context Aware Detection of Errors in Robotic Surgery,” which will be presented at the International Conference on Dependable Systems and Networks in June 2020.

Leveraging this early success, Hutchinson and Alemzadeh are ready to tackle two additional challenges:  enabling surgeons to generate a mental map of the surgical field and incorporating haptics or tactile feedback into the robotic controls.

Alemzadeh envisions an autonomous arm that can also provide feedback:  to take in what the surgeon is seeing, look for warning indicators in vision-hand movements and alert the surgeon to potential dangers. Together, Alemzadeh and Hutchinson make robotic surgery more intuitive.