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Robot surgeons may get upgraded

Mary Levin / UW Photography

The latest version of the Raven has mechanical wrists that hold tiny pincers. Coming soon is a piece that will allow research groups to attach the same tools used by commercial surgical robots.

Surgical robots named Ravens are flocking to university labs around the U.S. where researchers will be encouraged to hack their software.

This reprogramming could accelerate innovation in surgical robotics, which is stifled due in part to a lock on the market held by the only company with a FDA-approved robot, according to Blake Hannaford, the director of the Biorobotics Laboratory at the University of Washington in Seattle.

That robot, da Vinci from Intuitive Surgical, has successfully performed more than 200,000 procedures — mostly hysterectomies and the removal of prostate glands — in hospitals around the world.

In these types of procedures, surgeons use the robots to make small incisions and wield tiny instruments that are difficult to handle with their own hands. The result is shortened recovery times and less post-operative pain, which increases the demand for robot-assisted surgery.

Academic researchers would like to innovate in this space, but "da Vinci costs $1.8 million and it's a closed system, you're not allowed to program it," Hannaford told me Friday.

This makes sense given that the da Vinci has FDA approval and Intuitive Surgical owns the patents, he added, but until now researchers wanting to experiment had to build their own robots from scratch or come up with enough funds to buy a da Vinci for research purposes.

The Raven program overcomes these hurdles. The robots were purchased with a $1.1 million grant from the National Science Foundation. They are being shipped to five universities with an open-source software license. 

"The [researchers] will modify that software, invent their cool things, and then share them within this community so that we can build off of each other's advances," Hannaford said. 

Similar to da Vinci, each two-armed Raven has mechanical wrists with tiny pincers that can wield surgical tools. A person sitting at a screen can look through Raven's cameras and guide the instruments to do tasks such as suturing.

Unlike da Vinici, the Raven platform lacks FDA approval, which means that it will not be removing a human prostate gland any time soon. 

But innovations created using the platform could be licensed by an existing medical robotics company or used to start a new one, Hannaford noted.

And since some of Intuitive Surgical's key patents are soon to expire, many medical companies that have been sitting on the sidelines "waiting for the right time to jump in" may find the time is ripe to do so, he added.

To see Raven in action, check out the video below:

More stories on surgical robots:

John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. To learn more about him, check out his website. For more of our Future of Technology series, watch the featured video below.

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