Posted by: robotnews | March 26, 2007

Meet Penelope – A New Age Nurse

Close your eyes and imagine: In an operating room, a patient is draped and anaesthetized on a table. The other humans – doctors and nurses- are masked and in gowns. A metallic assistant, perhaps a distant cousin to R2D2 of “Star Wars” fame, is standing by. The surgeon calls out for instruments:
Kelly clamp.
And here is when science fiction starts blending eerily into a new health care reality: A slender robotic arm reaches toward a tray. And with each command, “she” hands instruments quickly, efficiently, correctly.Meet Penelope, the new scrub nurse at New York Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan: a robot with a job that in many hospitals is held by humans with college degrees. Penelope is not just any old robot, but one blessed with artificial intelligence, an ability to “see” and the capacity to “hear.”
June 16, 2005 marked the day when Penelope became the first robot, to work as an independent assistant to the surgical team at the New York Presbyterian Hospital in the removal of a benign tumour. Penelope is equipped with a voice recognition software, allowing the surgeon to ask for the tools in a normal manner, and uses its robotic gripper to place the tools in the surgeon’s arms. Once a particular instrument is used and laid down by the surgeon, Penelope uses her digital cameras and advanced image processing software to recognize it and place it back in its correct position. Penelope even uses a software that helps her predict what require next and keeps track of the instruments used during any surgery.
The Penelope system has four major hardware and software components :-
  1. A 5 degree-of-freedom robotic arm with an electromagnetic gripper
  2. An instrument platform that consists of sterile horizontal surfaces to store instruments
  3. The System Stand that allows positioning of Penelope
  4. The System Software that includes voice recognition and image processing routines
RoboNurses like Penelope can help in the serious manpower shortage faced by the health services industry, while helping save time and increasing efficiency in the operating room. Her human co-workers feel she is not a replacement to human nurses, but rather a great boon that can help the human nurses devote more time tending to patient needs. Costing as little as a portable X-Ray machine, Penelope will soon be a common sight in many operating theatres, enhancing the services of the healthcare industry.
References :-
-Gayathri Shankaranarayanan


  1. Stefan Westerm, NT061492M

    This yet again shows what robots best strenght is; helping and being a compliment to humans. I think there is a lot of people worrried that in the end, robots will do everything and no space will be left for humans. But as shown this far in this blog. All robots developed so far are used to ease work and help us with tedious tasks.

    Robots are not here to take our jobs, but to helt us do them quicker and easier. Some things they can perform with a much higher degree of speed and precision, but in the end someone have to tell them what to do.

  2. I agree with you Stefan. Robots are more of a support to mankind.
    But I think what people are afraid of is artificial intelligence taking over man’s natural intelligence. They feel that the learning capacity of robots with AI can actually overpower or atleast equal that of man’s. I personally think its not a very possible situation, though it keeps man in constant check of his position in the system, and ensures that he does not become overconfident.

  3. I made the previous post … Sorry I forgot to add my name and matric number to it…Hope its ok…
    -Gayathri Shankaranarayanan

  4. Hello Penelope!! you are indeed very cool!

    But in a place where life and death is just a line apart, i think its important for you to realise your “hand” needs to be sterilized, or at least, cleaned at ALL times.

    Thus, on top of the sterilized platform, i suggest that Penelope should install a sensor to detect the “dirtness” on her arm… If her hand is dirty, it would sound a beep to be cleaned. In this way, it would be much more safer.

    You know la. Its better than safe than sorry. :>

    Tan Xie Xing

  5. Seah Qiong Feng Sean

    oh to just add on to this hospital nurse, another recent development in Tokyo has shown a human-sized android that can lift a patient from a hospital bed. It has the potential to further evolve to be useful in the nursing industry, however, a look at the hands now gives one the shudders. Imagine getting prodded by it! Seems kinda sharp.

  6. Penelope sure made a medical history. And the robot hasn’t seem to replace the human. It would be interesting to note the number of surgical tools and instruments the robot can handle, recognise and distinguish. Sooner or later there should be robots to handle the job of a specialist doctor. Another interesting note is that, there are still cases where surgical instruments are left inside the patient’s body after surgery. Whether the robot would be able to identify or indicate so would be interesting to note.


    Vignesh Viswanathan (U045971E)

  7. U045926H Wong Jia Hui

    I think Penelope is a very useful robot, and as you all pointed out earlier, is here to compliment us and to improve our quality of life.

    I think that one thing to bear in mind is that robots should only remain in such an “assistive” position. This is because while they do possess excellent AI, they lack the very human factor of emotion. This will affect the way they assess situations.

    So yeaps, robots as helpers and compliments, rather than a subsitute of humans.

  8. There are certainly many benefits of having robots around to handle tasks such as these, but i think there are still many instances where the environment may get too complicated for the robot to handle.

    In the crowded operating theatre, the size of the robot might hinder movment and positioning it in the right place could create other problems. Maintainance could be a waste of time and could increase costs. Also, what if there is a power shortage?

  9. sorry forgot to add my name too in the previous post,

    Ong Mei Yee, U036855H

  10. I couldn’t help noticing in these posts that lot of people are apprehensive when it comes to robots replacing humans in jobs.

    When it comes to robots becoming smarter than humans… I do not think that it is possible as you cannot teach someone or something things that we do not know. So if a humanoid is indeed developed its knowledge and thinking process will limited to our capacity.

    Some robots have effectively already replaced humans in industries e.g. Car manufacturing.
    When it comes to surgery I think the main limitations are regarding the image processing and extensive computation required (“teaching the robot medicine”). Else I wouldn’t be surprised to see a totally autonomous robot in the next decade or so performing some basic operations like suturing.

    Nothing wrong if they can do work more efficiently than us.

    More vacation days for us… 😀

    Pavan U045965E

  11. I watched this robot function on the discovery channel in the program called “Beyond tomorrow”. While it looks good on paper, I feel that watching it function made me realise that in reality a human could have been better.

    The major advantage of this robot is that it reduces human error. But, the problem is that it is rather unintuitive for the doctor to have to “grab” the tools off the magnetic arm and to place them in the designated drop off point as compared to the human who actually make sures that the doctor gets the tool.

    That is to say if a robot is used, the tool is taken more than it is “handed over” which is the main convenience when a scrub nurse is present. A robot assistant means that the doctor will need to now “supervise” the robot itself thus defeating the purpose achieved from division of labour.

    Chen Songyi

  12. Hi..
    This is in reply to Ong Mei Yee’s post.
    I understand your concerns about positioning the robot and its maintenance. However, when it comes to Penelope, she is positioned on a stand with wheels, and hence she is quite mobile and can be placed in any room anywhere.

    Penelope provides voice feedback to communicate what the system is doing. For example, when the surgeon requests an instrument, Penelope echoes the instrument name back to the surgeon to avoid confusion. That way she wont cause much confusion in the OR. Infact the main use of Penelope is to reduce confusion and human errors in the OR.
    Also, what if there is a power shortage? – In reply to this, I would like to point out that in ORs, there are loads of instruments that run on electricity. For instance, the electrocardiogram, the lights, etc…Even if these equipments shut down, it could pose a danger to the patients. Moreover, even in the highly unlikely event of the robot completely failing to perform due to a power shortage or something, the surgery can proceed with little disruption. All of Penelope’s instruments are sitting on trays much like standard Mayo stands. A person can step in to do the job at any point.
    I hope this answers your concerns. Thanks for your feedback.
    -Gayathri Shankaranarayanan

  13. Hi Tan Xie Xing
    I agree that in an OR things need to be very sterile. And that is another major advantage of using Penelope. She reduces the amount of time technicians need to spend in the OR, and thus reduce the risk of accidents or infection.
    Your idea about a installing a sensor is also quite practical. That can be done too, if it is already not in use.
    Thanks for your feedback.
    -Gayathri Shankaranarayanan

  14. Hi Chen Songyi
    I understand your concerns about the amount of time spent by the doctor in monitoring the robot.
    During a surgical procedure in an OR, there is a scrub nurse who is always present to perform the task of just handing over the instruments required by the doctor as and when the doctor requests for them. So in a sense, I think a doctor will already be in the habit of taking instruments from another person’s hand. In this case, it will just be a robotic arm that he will have to grab instruments from, which is not very different from what was done earlier.
    Moreover, the doctor need not place the instrument back in the exact position in Penelope’s tray. She is equipped with the software that helps her identify the instrument, and place it back in its original location. Hence the question of the doctor doing extra work by having to place instruments in their exact spot need not be considered.
    Moreover, Penelope is the brainchild of Dr. Michael Treat, a surgeon and inventor. Hence, sufficient training had been given to the robot, before it was even allowed to embark on its first succesful independent procedure as an assitant in the OR. I think those those fears can be allayed too.
    -Gayathri Shankaranarayanan

  15. Hi Vignesh
    I would like to point out that Penelope can actually make sure that no surgical instruments are left inside a patients body by mistake. Her AI software aids in keeping track of instruments and ensure that none of them are misplaced. They could probably install a system in her such that at the end of every surgical procedure, she can check if all the instruments are back to her tray, before closing up the patient. That way, it could prevent human errors.
    -Gayathri Shankaranarayanan

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