TIM dabbles in 5G surgery

Italian telco TIM is the latest to showcase 5G’s low-latency feature by enabling a surgeon to remotely get involved in an operation.

Remote surgery has been at the forefront of 5G hype ever since low latency became a thing. Being able to communicate over long distances with virtually no delay between sending and receiving data opens up all sorts of remote control opportunities. Remote surgery is the most graphic and emotive of these because it’s literally a matter of life and death, so it has become the default means of bringing publicity to the technology.

Professor Giorgio Palazzini used a VR visor to allow him to interact live with a surgical team in Terni, Italy, even though he was in Rome. The operating theatre had three video cameras, including a 360-degree 4K one and a laparoscopic one, which allowed the Prof to zoom in on the important bits when he felt the need. All this, we’re told, enabled him to offer real-time advice and guidance, but he didn’t get involved via robotic arms or anything like that.

“This is only the start of a new era of e-learning in all branches of medicine,” said Palazzini. “But its short-term future will be remote surgery, made possible by robots and 5G with virtually no latency. That means being able to operate on patients in any hospital that has 5G connectivity and robots, and real-time sharing of data-intensive diagnostic exams such as CT and MRI.”

“Today we have taken an important step forward in the world of surgery, made possible by bringing together the technological and healthcare capabilities of the future,” said Elisabetta Romano, TIM’s Chief Innovation & Partnership Officer. “New opportunities are arising for the sector to benefit from innovative solutions that serve both patients and the entire scientific community.

“TIM’s innovative 5G Digital Business Platform, combined with the specific characteristics of 5G, as well as robotics, artificial intelligence and the Internet of Medical Things, are opening up some exciting but challenging scenarios. It is TIM’s goal to play its part in driving the growth of Italy and the company aims to extend the cutting-edge knowledge and techniques available in this area to as many people as possible.”

While the technology may exist to enable robo-surgery, there is likely to be a significant regulatory, legal and cultural lag before it becomes a regular fixure in the field. In that sense it has a fair bit in common with fully autonomous driving and it will probably take a while before people are relaxed about there being no human being physically present in high risk environments like roads and operating theatres.

Telefónica demos surgery with a bit of help from 5G

Some surgeries were performed in Spain with real-time assistance from Japan thanks to the low latency of 5G.

This is still far from the remote surgery that has for so long been used as an illustration of the utopian potential of 5G, but is nonetheless a dramatic illustration of the kind of things it could unlock. A surgeon performed some operations in Malaga and had real-time assistance from another doctor who was dialling in from Tokyo. That assistance would have been far less useful if there had been a lag on the line.

The demo was part of the Advanced Digestive Endoscopy Conference and featured some degree of augmented reality. It claims also to be the first in medical congress in which the training sessions have been broadcast live with almost no latency, thus enabling attendees to interact thanks to 5G and AR.

“The operations organised at this conference are just an example of the numerous practical applications that 5G can have in healthcare,” said Mercedes Fernández, Innovation Manager at Telefónica. “Thanks to two key features of this technology – the low latency that allows transmission without delays and the ability to handle large video streams at high speed – it was possible to perform this intervention with the added value of doing so live and in real time with the interaction of doctors and attendees to provide solutions and ask questions about the clinical case that was undertaken.”

“The experience of previous years in organising innovative training courses in digestive endoscopy allows us this year to provide a global training course thanks to 5G technology, something that might seem science fiction but that we are making reality today” said Dr Pedro Rosón the surgeon who performed the operations.

“The use of 5G and augmented reality is, without doubt, what stands out in comparison with our previous editions and with any other standard medical workshops. We are therefore proud to keep and to continue offering an innovative training space with the live conducting of cases by specialists from Spain and abroad, with an emphasis on theory and reviewing the latest advances in interventional endoscopy.”

Remote assistance via 5G that makes use of AR may well be one of the primary use-cases used to sell 5G to industry. The potential it offers for providing training in the field is clear and it could transform the way training and mentoring is conducted. These are still early days, but each demo such as this one likely makes mainstream acceptance of this kind of technology more likely.