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"Originally developed for the American army by Dr Hannaford and Jacob Rosen of the University of California, Santa Cruz, as a prototype for robotic surgery on the battlefield, it is compact, light and cheap (relatively speaking) at around $250,000. More importantly for academics, it is also the first surgical robot to use open-source software. Its Linux-based operating system lets anyone modify and improve the original code, creating a way for researchers to experiment and collaborate.

Universities across America took delivery of the first brood of Ravens in February. At Harvard, Rob Howe and his team hope to use a Raven to operate on a beating heart, by automatically compensating for its motion. At the moment, heart surgery requires that the organ be stopped and then restarted. At the University of California, Los Angeles, meanwhile, Warren Grundfest is working on ways to give the robot a sense of touch that is communicated to the operator. Pieter Abbeel and Ken Goldberg at the University of California, Berkeley, will try teaching the robot to operate autonomously by mimicking surgeons. And Dr Rosen himself will work on ways to get human and robotic surgeons to work together.

Crucially, although individual laboratories will retain the rights to their own particular innovations, the results of these studies, and the improvements they suggest, will be stored in an online repository available to all. What happens after that is less certain. The research-oriented Raven has not yet been approved by American regulators, so all these investigations are, for the moment, restricted to operations on animals or human cadavers. And there is another, legal, problem. Intuitive Surgical, the company behind the da Vinci, holds patents that could make launching a commercial competitor tricky—at least in the immediate future.

Once those patents expire, however, the University of Washington could spin off the Raven into a start-up company." (http://www.economist.com/node/21548489)

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