Akhil Madhani

Teleoperated surgical instruments

Akhil Madhani invented robotic instruments for use in fields as diverse as surgery and space exploration when he was a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 

Madhani was born in 1968 in Nairobi, Kenya, and his family emigrated to the U.S. when he was two years old, settling in Seattle, WA. Like many inventors, including Jerome Lemelson himself, Madhani’s inspiration to invent comes partly from the fact that his father is a doctor.   Madhani observed his father perform an arthroscopy.  Such methods of “minimally invasive surgery” (MIS) have been developed because the less cutting a surgeon must do; the less traumatic the treatment is for the patient. 

Madhani realized that technology could play a broader and more active role in MIS.  Relying on the expertise in robotics that he had gained at the Vision and Touch Guided Manipulation group at MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Lab, Madhani invented the Black Falcon, a teleoperated surgical instrument.  The Black Falcon allows a surgeon to manipulate bodily tissue, and to sew and tie off sutures, at a distance (the meaning of “teleoperational”).  For example, coronary bypass surgery traditionally requires that the patient’s ribcage be split down the middle and spread open; the Black Falcon l allows the essential procedures of such an operation to be performed through small incisions between the ribs. 

Madhani has over six patents. NASA and Walt Disney Imagineering Labs have used his other robotic inventions.  Madhani invented the Talon, a robotic wrist and hand for use in remote autonomous exploration like that of the Mars Sojourner.  The Talon was an outgrowth of Madhani’s work on “WAM,” a robotic whole arm manipulator that can actually throw and catch a ball. 

For his many contributions to the field, Madhani was awarded the 1998 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize. He was also named in the MIT Technology Review TR100 list in 1999, awarded the Themed Entertainment Association award for Outstanding Achievement in Technology, and Imagineering’s Frank G. Wells Award for Teamwork both in 2004.

Madhani is currently Senior Research Scientist at Disney Imagineering Labs.