Saskatchewan researchers test a robot that can do ultrasound exams
January 31, 2024
A telerobotic medical imaging device – developed by Waterloo, Ontario-based Cobionix – is undergoing trials in Saskatchewan to deliver remote-controlled ultrasound exams. The work is part of an initiative by the University of Saskatchewan’s Virtual Health Hub and the Saskatchewan Indian Institute of Technology (SIIT) to improve access to healthcare for remote communities.
The AI-enabled, seven degrees of freedom ultrasound robotic arm, called Codi, is designed for operation without the need for a sonographer onsite, facilitating the delivery of diagnostic imaging to underserved communities and eliminating the need for travel to distant health centres.
“We are at a pivotal time in the development of technology with artificial intelligence, 5G telecommunications and robotics enabling virtual care,” said Dr. Ivar Mendez. “These technologies will transform the way we deliver healthcare in the future. The problem is that we’re not prepared for it.”
In addition to providing Cobionix with the clinical trial data for approval of the device by the FDA and Health Canada, the acquisition of the device by the Saskatchewan Indian Institute of Technology will provide Indigenous students with the training required to operate these transformational technologies.
The Saskatchewan Indian Institute of Technology trains Indigenous learners in campuses across the province to qualify as practical nurses, mental health workers and radiology technicians. It also prides itself as a world leader in the delivery of robotic pre-natal sonography, having performed more than 500 ultrasounds using another telerobotic ultrasound solution from AdEchoTech, a medical device manufacturer in France.
Dr. Mendez describes AdEchoTech’s Melody device as a first generation telerobotic ultrasound solution, as it requires the presence of an onsite support person in the remote community to position the robotic arm on the patient. The more advanced Cobionix robotic arm can be operated without the need for an assistant at the patient’s location.
“We’re especially interested in providing remote care to populations that are underserved, and the most underserved populations are Indigenous populations, so we want to train Indigenous students to use these technologies of the future,” said Dr. Mendez. “This is how we change the narrative of Indigenous youth contributing to the country.”
The deployment of telerobotic ultrasound technology to remote, underserved communities by the University of Saskatchewan’s Virtual Health Hub and the Saskatchewan Indian Institute of Technology, he added, can serve as a model for the rest of Canada.
“The reason we chose to focus on ultrasound is because ultrasound is one of the most common imaging diagnostic tools for many things, but we were specifically interested in pre-natal care.
“There is a high rate of pregnancies among young girls in Indigenous communities and they’re often high-risk pregnancies. There’s no availability of ultrasound in many of these communities, so if you are a pregnant young person, you need to be sent to a city for diagnostic imaging. You’re away from your family and put up in a hotel.
“The mortality rate for newborn babies in Indigenous communities,” said Dr. Mendez, “is 10 times higher than in the rest of Canada and one of the reasons is we don’t have good pre-natal ultrasound and pre-natal care in remote communities.”
While the current focus is on pre-natal ultrasounds, Dr. Mendez notes that algorithms will be developed to also perform gall bladder, kidney and other ultrasounds.
The AI-enabled Cobionix device is equipped with speakers, microphones and ten cameras. It can “look at a patient and talk to a patient the same way you talk to Alexa or Siri,” said Nima Zamani, CEO of Cobionix. “It can tell a patient to lie on the bed and lift up their shirt. It will deposit gel on the patient’s abdomen and perform the procedure.”
It’s equipped with natural language processing capability for communication and reasoning, position estimation smarts and object detection capability.
And unlike most humans, an AI-enabled robot can converse with patients in multiple languages.
“All of the computation is done inside the robot to avoid problems with latency,” said Zamani. “We spent a lot of time miniaturizing, designing it and building it right here in Ontario.”
Cobionix was founded in 2021 at the University of Waterloo’s Velocity incubator and in June 2023 raised $2.8 million in seed funding to commercialize Codi.