Making of the da Vinci Research Kit — a History

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I once had to explain to an engineer that the da Vinci Research Kit was not a natural resource.

Predecessor to the da Vinci Research Kit with electronics, FPGA firmware, and software designed for scalability and development velocity.

As he recounted his use of the platform, familiarity made me blurt out, "oh yeah... I helped make that!"

He clarified, "No. It's an open source framework on the Internet," perhaps to rescue me from undue nostalgia. A bold move considering this was his job interview. (He did end up joining the team!)

Today the dVRK is the de facto standard for surgical robotics, having been adopted by such programs as Stanford, UC Berkeley, Carnegie Mellon, Seoul National, and Imperial College contributing vast amounts of innovation to the field (~300 articles as of this review). It has even appeared in The New York Times, but it didn't appear on the Internet overnight.

We walked through the building blocks of the dVRK and tied them back to the efforts of people much like himself, building a concept that did not yet exist. They navigated the uncertainty and precarity of creating something new, guided only by the faint hope of better medical care.

In hopes of illustrating how our present efforts create the future, here is a first-person perspective history of the da Vinci Research Kit—a look at the invention as it materialized.

Part 1: Taking chances

It's funny how this new idea came about simply because robots kept tripping on their own wires (check out the cover photo of this article to see what I mean). New research begets new robots begets new wires and as hypotheses became more advanced, robots grew in complexity and their wires grew out of control.

Complex, custom wiring is remarkably error prone and nightmare inducing. It dampens the pace of progress to say the least.

In the robotics lab at Johns Hopkins, Peter Kazanzides wanted to merge these bundles of analog wires into a single digital link for a more modular and scalable alternative. I was lucky enough to be one of the early grad students to give it a shot.

There was a theory behind it, as often there is, but it was unknown whether it would work in practice well enough to justify the commitment. Unknown how long it would take to find out. The prospect of trying for months on end yet still failing was daunting. There were doubts within our own team despite the thrill of forging something new. When presenting preliminary work at a conference, I was heckled and accused of doctoring the results. It was a gamble but thanks to incredible and inspiring mentors, things kept chugging along.

Part 2: A moment of truth

One day my advisor Russ Taylor came to reiterate the risks of a fruitless venture, lest I hide from some inconvenient truths: Time lost, funding spent, and burnout imminent, all chipping away at a fleeting graduation window.

Engineering the electronics would require a lot of time on trial and error. No matter how successful, by itself it would not align sufficiently for a degree in computer science and robotics.

The reality hit me harder with each passing day. The potential benefit would be much more for the community than for me individually. In other words, a level of personal sacrifice. No wonder it was so much fun.

Russ gave me two options.

Option 1: Build an experimental robot, a surgical snake, from scratch. Run it on equally experimental electronics, should it ever work.

Option 2: Grab an existing functioning robot off the shelf. Contort my thesis around its limitations, and pretend not to notice them.

The latter option paved a pragmatic path towards graduation. The first option was an unpaved difficult path, an inspired solution to a meaningful problem.

These options made me reconsider my reasons for being. You go to school to learn something new. You learn something new and get a degree. But what if you could only pick one of the two?

I paused.

Russ: No need to decide right now. Just think about it.

Me: Oh, I have. I was just figuring out the phrasing.

In pursuit of becoming the most capable problem solver I could be, I worked on skills for three years post-college to get into grad school. Said goodbye to my friends, my family, my savings and moved across the country.

Then in one defining moment, my graduation was staked on unproven technology and it was now my charge to prove it. I don't remember seeing, I don't remember breathing, but I vividly remember the moment being timeless. Neither short nor long, time. Just. Froze.

Usually the moment of truth is when you power on your system for the first time and check for smoke. But this time it was this and there was no going back.

Part 3: Greater than the sum of its parts

The hardware + software + electronics formula for the dVRK had been kicking around for some time.

Intuitive Surgical brought the hardware. Check.

Our lab brought a wealth of software fit to run any robot. Check.

Electronics, being kind of hard to engineer and similarly hard to find an interested engineer, should have been the final piece of the puzzle.

Not exactly.

Once the snake robot was up and running, equivalent electronics for the da Vinci robot were designed, manufactured, and assembled in a matter of weeks. The missing piece, it turns out, was simply the knowledge that the concept worked. It is said that knowledge is power, but this experience taught me that the real power comes from the journey towards discovering new knowledge.

* * *

It is amazing how far an idea can go with a little bit of hard work, teamwork, and ingenuity. We often lament when things don't go according to plan, yet that is when the magic happens.

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