10 Background Facts About the da Vinci Research Kit

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Within a few short years, the da Vinci Research Kit went from a lab prototype to the de facto standard for medical robotics research. In case you find yourself as caught off guard as I was, here are 10 things to know to catch up on one of the most exciting robotics projects in open source!

🦾 1. It's the standard platform for medical robotics research
Stanford, UC Berkeley, Carnegie Mellon, Seoul National, Imperial College London, and more make up the 40 international programs adopting the da Vinci Research Kit. A fairy tale in a field where standardization is otherwise difficult.

🦾 2. It's a hardware+software+controller package
Check out the free software and you'll quickly realize just how complex robotic systems can be—this is why shared platforms are so vital to innovation.

🦾 3. It started as a collaboration between Johns Hopkins, WPI, and Intuitive Surgical in 2012
Granted, each side brought enough know-how to the table to swiftly capitalize on their ambitious vision.

🦾 4. It formally debuted on June 4, 2014 at ICRA in Hong Kong
A memorable day for personal reasons - I was late for my own talk at this IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation, one of the marquee meetups for robo-enthusiasts. Fortunately my advisor got things started then handed it off to me so smoothly that the audience was none the wiser. Textbook improvisation.

🦾 5. It started as a Major Research Instrumentation project
The goal was to standardize controllers for many different robots and in doing so accelerate the engineering, collaboration, and innovation processes of robotics research. The da Vinci system was one "port" of this initiative; alas, hardware is hard and Intuitive is good at it, so it's fair to say the dVRK has commandeered the spotlight.

🦾 6. It's based on FireWire
This *is* your father's Oldsmobile. IEEE 1394 was the Cadillac of high speed data transfer back in the day. How else would you control upwards of 42 axes at 1 kHz bandwidth at under 50% duty cycle, over a length of 4.5 m with deterministic latency?

🦾 7. It's open source
Many parts of the dVRK trace their ancestry to Hopkins' open source tradition of the 2000s. Here's when they surfaced on github:

  • Jan 11, 2009: cisst (4,577 commits as of this writing)
  • Oct 19, 2011: sawControllers (234)
  • Sep 29, 2012: mechatronics-firmware (662)
  • Dec 16, 2012: mechatronics-software (734)
  • Jan 31, 2013: sawRobotIO1394 (587)
  • Mar 24, 2013: sawIntuitiveResearchKit (1,898)
  • May 21, 2013: dvrk-ros (835)
  • Jun 11, 2013: mechatronics-boards (147)

... and counting, each commit with a story to tell.

🦾 8. It's built on the shoulders of giants
The dVRK leverages transformative projects such as Linux, ROS, and Python on its mission to transform surgical care.

🦾 9. It has appeared in The New York Times
A spotlight on the innovation made possible by collaboration.

🦾 10. Transporting us into the future
Truly exciting times await when research kits for Ottava, Hugo, and more enter the fold. Until then, the da Vinci paradigm is up to the task of fostering innovation in medical robotics.

🦾 Bonus (video): The pulsating LEDs on the controller front panel (Card A and B) are there to provide a quick visual of system status. They are bi-color LEDs that can be turned green, red, or off and used to communicate key pieces of info at a glance. In this instance they indicate that key components are connected properly, that the system clock (its electronic heartbeat) is active, and that the FPGA state machine is running. The origin story however is a little bit different - being bored in class! To have some fun I experimented with pulse width modulation on other LEDs before bringing it over to the dVRK.

It's alive! First known recorded power-on of the da Vinci Research Kit (dVRK) motion controller, enabling the platform to become the global standard for medical robotics research.

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