By Dana Dudzinska-Przesmitzki and Monica Smith
"Engineers have to invent things, because that's their job, to develop something as a solution to a problem."
As a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, Akhil Madhani (b. 1968) designed and built the "Silver Falcon" and the "Black Falcon," robots that allow surgeons to perform minimally invasive surgery by remote control, manipulate body tissue, sew and tie off sutures, and conduct other delicate procedures through incisions as small as one inch wide.
Although both his parents were doctors, Madhani had not been interested in a strictly medical career. Instead, he pursued studies combining medicine with mechanical engineering. "I always thought biology was kind of icky. I always preferred machines and mechanisms." Madhani was inspired to create the Black Falcon after watching his father perform heart surgery. "[I asked myself:] What if you could do heart surgery without making that big hole in [a patient's] chest? What if you could make something that went in between the ribs, so that you didn't have to break any ribs at all?"
The Black Falcon works with a doctor sitting at a console and using a joystick to manipulate a tiny "hand" inside the body, cutting and grafting arteries, making very small sutures, and tying knots. The doctor can see on a computer monitor that magnifies the images of the patient's organs. Recovery is usually quicker and less painful than after traditional surgery, since the patient has only two small incisions--one for the tiny camera and one for the robotic hand--instead of a large incision and cracked ribs that must heal. Surgeons can also hold their arms and hands in more comfortable positions, cutting down on fatigue.
During graduate school Madhani also consulted on the design of the "da Vinci" surgical robot and movable-wrist surgical instruments for Intuitive Surgical, Inc. For his clever developments in robotics, Madhani won the $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize for Invention and Innovation in 1998, and the following year was named by Technology Review magazine as one of the "TR100," the magazine's list of the one hundred most innovative people in the world under the age of thirty-five.
Since 1997, Madhani has worked as a mechanical engineer and project leader at Walt Disney Imagineering, on robotics, computer-controlled systems, and digital technologies. His projects include developing "Lucky," a robotic dinosaur at Disney's Animal Kingdom that Disney claims is the world's first fully autonomous, walking audio-animatronic figure. More recently Madhani has been creating an animatronic version of the new Disney robot character "Wall-E." Madhani is a coinventor on twelve patents, including one for Disney, and is featured on the Lemelson Center's Invention at Play website at http://inventionatplay.org.
From Prototype, October 2008