We’ve all volunteered for things in our lives, whether it’s something we want to do or something we may not be super excited about. Many volunteers are needed in the medical field to test out new technology – how would we know it’s possible to transplant organs without trying it out first? I have always been fascinated by the selfless people who volunteer to donate their kidneys to strangers; I don’t know if I could do it. Some volunteers offer not to donate, but to be on the receiving end of new procedures that need to be tried out. A woman in China recently volunteered to have 3D printed teeth implanted in her mouth…by a robotic dentist.
According to the South China Morning Post, there is a major shortage of dentists in the country – about 400 million people in China are in need of dental implants, but each year, only about one million people receive them. Sometimes when people can’t get dental surgery, they’ll visit individuals who are not qualified to perform dental work, causing themselves more harm. Dental surgery is hard enough, given the small, often hard to see space that dentists have to work in, without having to worry about not having enough dentists.
We often see 3D printing technology combined with dental applications, and using robots in surgery is not a new concept either – we’ve seen robots that are designed to perform hysterectomies and even brain surgery on epilepsy patients, but this is the first robot dentist I’ve ever heard of. This is also the first completely autonomous robotic dental implant surgery, and the researchers who developed the robot hope it will be able to help with the shortage of qualified dentists in China, as well as cut back on problems caused by human error.
As a person who is already terrified of going to the dentist, the idea of a robot wielding the instruments sounds like my absolute worst nightmare. But, I do believe anything that can safely cut down on human error during surgery is a good idea, so I should probably get used to robots running operations.
The robotic dentist was developed over the past four years by researchers with the Beihang University Institute of Robotics and the Fourth Military Medical University’s affiliated Stomatological Hospital. Dr. Zhao Yimin, a leading oral rehabilitation specialist who works with one of the hospitals, said that “the robot combines dentists’ expertise and the benefits of technology.”
The implant surgery took place on September 16 in Xian, Shaanxi, and while human medical staff were present during the procedure, they did not participate during the operation – they had completed their work prior to the surgery. Dentists had previously fitted the robot’s position orientation equipment to the patient’s mouth, and programmed it to move to the right position for the surgery. They also determined the angle, depth, and precise movements that the robot would need to adhere to in order to fit the two 3D printed teeth inside a cavity in the patient’s mouth.
According to Engadget, the team tested the robot out before the actual surgery and collected data to make any necessary adjustments to the robot before the brave volunteer was given a local anesthetic and the surgery began. The 3D printed tooth implant surgery took about an hour, and the robot was able to make adjustments during the operation that were “in line with the patient’s own movements.”
Experts said that the implants reached the required standard for the type of operation, fitting to within a margin of error of 0.2 to 0.3 mm. If you’re interested in seeing the robot in action, you can take a look at the video below, though I will warn you that if you don’t like close-ups of spinning dental drills, it’s best to sit this one out.