What a surgical 'robot' does

The da Vinci Surgical System is not technically a robot because it can't be programmed or decide on its own what to do.

The surgeon is in complete control at all times, but is able to operate with greater precision and vision because the system's technology is enhancing his or her capabilities.

The system consists of two main components - a console where the surgeon sits and a set of four mechanical arms positioned a few feet away next to the patient.

Three of the arms are tipped with tiny surgical instruments and the fourth with a tiny 3-D camera. The instruments and camera are inserted into the patient through small incisions - the same minimally invasive approach used in laparoscopic surgery.

The camera feeds a high-definition image to the da Vinci console, where the surgeon guides the instruments with levers and pedals.

The system removes any tremors and translates the surgeon's motions into steady micromovements with more flexibility than the human wrist.

Robotic surgery takes laparoscopic surgery - in which the surgeon's hands directly control the instruments - to another level. Like laparoscopic surgery, robotic surgery can limit pain, reduce blood loss, minimize scarring and lead to shorter recovery times compared to open surgery.

However, robotic surgery is suitable for more complex surgeries because the system's technology gives the surgeon superior dexterity and vision. Plus, the surgeon is seated instead of standing so fatigue is less of a factor during long operations.

The Food and Drug Administration has approved the da Vinci for a variety of cardiac, gynecologic, urologic and other surgeries. Two of the most common are hysterectomies (removal of the uterus) and prostatectomies (removal of the prostate).

- BRAD BROBERG