The Story About Raven

rosenSLUG REPORT > Collaboration was key to new open sourced surgical robots

“The story about Raven is actually the story about collaboration.”

These words rang out long after my recent interview with Jacob Rosen, an associate professor of computer engineering in the Jack Baskin School of Engineering at UC Santa Cruz. Rosen and his research group have been working alongside Blake Hannaford, director of bio-robotics of the University of Washington (UW), to create Raven II, a robotic surgery system that relies upon Rosen’s choice word: collaboration.


Cooperation between surgeons and engineers is “probably the only way you can design, fabricate, or create any surgical medical device,” says Rosen, and is directly responsible for the creation of the Raven system.

“It all started in the mid-90s … we started to look at surgery and study objective assessments of surgical skills from a mathematical perspective—that is to say developing algorithms that can assess skills in an objective way—and from that study we were able to create a foundation for Raven I,” says Rosen.

Now, several years later, the two groups’ hard work is finally paying off with the recent completion of seven Raven II systems. Five of the systems will be sent to some of the top medical research facilities in the country: Harvard University, John Hopkins University, University of Nebraska, UC Berkley, and UCLA. The last two systems will stay with UCSC and UW. All seven systems, once delivered and installed, will also be networked together over the Internet in order to conduct collaborative experiments.  

“We have a stable system that can be duplicated and shared between other people operating in the field, which is important because one of the problems for people studying surgical robotics is that the research platforms are very limited and usually not accessible,” says Rosen. “The idea is to create an open source platform, both hardware and software, that anyone can change, in order to accelerate research and stimulate collaboration.”

Rosen cites Robert Aumann, an Israeli-American mathematician and member of the United States National Academy of Sciences, whose studies into the prisoner dilemma, a concept within game theory that shows why two individuals may never want to cooperate, influenced Rosen and his team’s research.   

“What [Aumann] discovered was that if two people played the situation out multiple times, the outcome was different than if you just play once.  And so his conclusion … showed that if two companies who are evenly competing within the same market collaborate, they will both make more money,” Rosen explains.

The difference between the men, however, is that Rosen is interested in the way in which two surgeons can work together mainly through the means of robotics in the operating room. The Raven II system was specifically designed for minimal invasive surgeries, which are surgeries where small incisions in the body are made in order to allow small tools and, in many cases, cameras to pass through them so that surgeons can see and operate on the inflicted area underneath the skin. The Raven II is comprised of a surgical robot with two arms, a camera for viewing the operating area, and a surgeon interface system.

Rosen hopes that surgeons, as well as engineers, will be open to using this new technology in the collaborative manner that produced it.

“There is sort of a notion of collaboration embedded in many of the things that we do,” he says, “and [sometimes] as territorial animals, it is hard for us to accept them, but it tends to work.”

PHOTO: Jacob Rosen, associate professor of computer engineering in the Jack Baskin School of Engineering at UC Santa Cruz. Photo by Keana Parker.

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