Dr. Eleonora Tagliabue and Dr. Daniel Reichard

Demographic change, with an increasingly ageing society and doctors on a hamster wheel with less and less time for patients, is crying out for solutions. With passion and innovative spirit, Eleonora Tagliabue and Daniel Reichard from the ZEISS Innovation Hub @ KIT are conducting research into medical robots for microsurgery and ophthalmology with the aim of supporting surgeons in increasing the precision of procedures and thus enabling higher-quality treatment for affected individuals. In a stimulating environment with close ties to the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), the two are passionate about driving innovation forward and consciously accept the risk of taking a wrong turn – but this is the only way to create groundbreaking products that will improve people's lives in the long term.

Eleonora Tagliabue and Daniel Reichard

The healthcare system is overburdened, doctors have less and less time for more and more patients: the much-cited shortage of skilled workers is coming up against an increasingly ageing society. But what if surgeons could be supported by robotics in some stages of surgery? This is precisely where Dr. Eleonora Tagliabue, Research Group Leader for Medical Robotics and Assistance Systems, and Dr. Daniel Reichard, Senior Researcher, come in with their daily research work. They share a common goal: with their research work, they want to have a direct impact on people's lives and well-being in the field of medical robotics.


Many roads lead to Karlsruhe

Dr. Eleonora Tagliabue

Dr. Eleonora Tagliabue comes from Italy and studied biomedical engineering in Milan and Chicago before completing her doctorate in computer science at the University of Verona. As an inquisitive person, she has discovered the perfect interface between engineering and technology on the one hand and the healthcare sector on the other.

Not only does she enjoy interacting with surgeons as well as people from the engineering sector, she has also recognized her ability to play a moderating role between these disciplines, which are often difficult to reconcile. Tagliabue discovered her passion for robotics during the final phase of her university career. The move to the ZEISS Innovation Hub in Karlsruhe was the logical next step for her.

Dr. Daniel Reichard

Dr. Daniel Reichard also knows that he is in the right place professionally. As is the case for Tagliabue, the combination of two scientific disciplines is of immense importance to him: after studying computer science, he came into contact with medical technology issues as part of his thesis, specifically software-supported imaging in surgery.

Through his involvement in the Human Brain Project, he familiarized himself with neurorobotics. So his journey to medical robotics was more or less mapped out for him. Reichard is now an expert in the field of robotics and machine learning – like Tagliabue at the ZEISS Innovation Hub in Karlsruhe.

The future of medical robotics: how can automation support surgeons?

Dr. Tagliabue and Dr. Reichard on their research work

Ultimately, the focus of our work must always be on people's well-being and thus the concrete utilization of research, for example through medical robots.

Dr. Daniel Reichard

Senior Researcher, ZEISS Innovation Hub Karlsruhe

4 facts about the future of medical robotics

  • 1.5 billion

    The global population aged 65 and over is expected to reach 1.5 billion by 2050.1

  • 10 million

    According to the WHO, there will be a shortage of 10 million employees in the healthcare sector worldwide by 2030.2

  • Up to 26%

    The use of surgical robots can reduce the length of hospital stays by up to 26%.3

  • Up to 30%

    The use of robotics can reduce operation times by up to 30%.4

  • Innovation Hub @KIT
  • Dr. Eleonora Tagliabue
  • Dr. Daniel Reichard
  • ZEISS Innovation Hub @ KIT
  • Dr. Eleonora Tagliabue
  • Dr. Daniel Reichard

ZEISS Innovation Hub @ KIT: state-of-the-art research in an inspiring environment

The ZEISS Innovation Hub is located on the campus of the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) and is thus embedded in a creative and inspiring ecosystem of up-and-coming start-ups and established players. Together with KIT, the team conducts research projects, organizes lectures and operates a Makerspace. Always with the aim of turning today's research into tomorrow's applications.

"The interdisciplinary exchange on an equal footing with luminaries in their respective disciplines is absolutely beneficial for research work: if you have a specific question, you almost always automatically get a valuable answer," says Tagliabue, who particularly appreciates the exchange with the professors at KIT.

Reichard also emphasizes the practical nature of the work compared to a pure research laboratory. Specifically, the close connection with the ZEISS Medical Technology segment and thus the business perspective on research that always resonates in the background: "Above all, the collaboration with application experts and colleagues from engineering shows you time and again that the point is not to do research work just for the sake of research. Ultimately, the focus of our work must always be on people's well-being and thus the concrete utilization of research, for example through medical robots."

Robotics meets pioneering and entrepreneurial spirit

Research in the field of robotics is being conducted at the ZEISS Innovation Hub @ KIT. In a modern campus atmosphere, science meets the spirit of young start-ups and the entrepreneurial spirit of established players. In this environment, a team from ZEISS Corporate Research and Technology is working on medical robotics. Inspired by the needs of surgeons, the team develops assistance systems for microsurgery and ophthalmology – in numerous collaborations with universities, research institutions and hospitals.

Use of robotic solutions in microsurgery.

Focusing on the well-being of patients

But what exactly are Tagliabue and Reichard researching? Here is a brief side note: with cataracts5, the lens of the human eye gradually becomes cloudy – usually as a result of natural ageing. The only effective treatment option is an operation. The cloudy lens is removed and replaced with a new, artificial lens. Most of these standard procedures are performed without complications.

Nevertheless, inflammation of the inside of the eye can sometimes occur due to contamination, injury to the iris or eyeball, bleeding or wound healing disorders. An operation supported by robotics or various assistance systems for microsurgery and ophthalmology can help to minimize the occurrence of these side effects.

"For example, robots can help to improve the precision and repeatability of procedures – the integration of automation functions into robot systems will play an important role here in the future," explains Tagliabue. As a result, surgeons can focus on the more critical phases of a procedure and on making high-quality decisions. Simpler and routine tasks are "outsourced" to robots.

And sometimes robots can do even more than highly qualified medical staff can. A large number of medical procedures would simply be impossible without the use of robotic solutions. One specific example is microsurgery. Reichard explains: "In certain areas, the human body reaches its limits. Automated solutions could, for example, help to make procedures even more precise, such as penetrating a specific layer of skin with a scalpel."

  • Dr. Eleonora Tagliabue and Dr. Daniel Reichard on the stairs
  • Medical robotics
  • Area of medical robotics
  • Dr. Eleonora Tagliabue and Dr. Daniel Reichard on the stairs
  • Medical robotics
  • Area of medical robotics

Always factored in: failure as an important part of research

Tagliabue and Reichard really enjoy working at the ZEISS Innovation Hub and are passionate about their work. Yet it is the major challenges that really drive them to give it their all. According to Tagliabue, the field of medical robotics requires the identification of functionalities or workflows that can be applied to a large number of people and therefore potential patients: "Unfortunately, 'one size fits all' does not work in this area. Adaptive models are required that can be made to fit the respective human anatomy. Sensor technology and the recognition of individual circumstances also play a major role. That is one of the greatest challenges in our profession."

As happy as the two researchers are about incremental progress, failure is also part of the process and must always be factored in. While engineers, for example, usually end up with an improved, functioning product that can then be marketed when continuing to develop technical functions, Tagliabue and Reichard's challenge is to look into the distant future, think in visionary scenarios and develop concepts. And this also means moving into uncharted territory to some degree.

"Of course, we cannot always predict everything correctly. As researchers, we sometimes take a wrong turn and therefore need to be able to tolerate a lot of frustration from time to time. The saying from my university days that it wouldn't be research if we weren't allowed to fail often helps me here," says Reichard with a smile.



Medical robotics in use

What does the future look like for medical robotics?

While there has been progress in the automation of operations and the adoption of individual standardized process steps by robots, performing a full operation on patients without any human intervention is impossible.

"Surgeons will continue to be responsible for planning, implementing and monitoring operations – but in the future, they will be supported by medical robots that will perform strenuous, precise or tiring tasks. For the benefit of the patients, who profit from a higher quality surgical result," emphasizes Tagliabue.

In focus: robotics in medicine

  • Medical robots are used to support doctors and surgeons. While they are always responsible for the entire operation and focus on critical phases of a procedure, in the future medical robotics could potentially assist with individual and routine tasks when the natural abilities of medical professionals reach their limits.

  • The healthcare system is overburdened, doctors have less and less time for more and more patients: the much-cited shortage of skilled workers is coming up against an increasingly ageing society. In the future, medical robots could potentially support surgeons in their work by taking over simple and routine tasks during an operation. This could enable doctors to focus on critical phases of an operation and make high-quality decisions.

  • Medical robotics will always have an assistive function and support surgeons in performing routine tasks. A fully automated operation without humans having ultimate responsibility is currently inconceivable.