First of all, I'm a biologist, so please let me know if this question is being asked in the wrong place. I regularly perform operations on rats and recently stumbled upon the following paper (http://ar.in.tum.de/pub/padoy2008IAAI/padoy2008IAAI.pdf) where surgical activity is classified primarily based on the use of specific surgical tools. I thought this would be a very interesting thing for me to do with my own work and may help me be more efficient with my time. I have a good CS background so the use of the required computational models is not problematic. What is a problem though is the fact that the authors of this paper use manual tagging to identify whether a given tool is being used or not. This seems inefficient; the authors admit this, saying automatic tagging is possible.

I am wondering if anyone can suggest a good way to tag the tools being used? My instinct is to use a simple RFID system, where each tool is tagged and the tool tray could contain a reader. This would allow me to collect a binary signal vector from each tool across the duration of an operation (successful read indicates tool is not being used, failed read indicates that it is). Is this a good approach to my problem? If so, could someone recommend a specific tagging system to use? If not, could someone recommend another approach?

As an aside, this project is for my own edification and enjoyment: it is not a part of my funded research, I am not going to publish on it, and I am not going to sell anything I put together.


Assume that the cost of the sensing system is not a constraint when offering suggestions.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Are you willing to have a holder so that each instrument fits in a specific place in a specific way, and then always replace each instrument into its designated holder when done with it? That would simplify things a lot as the instruments would not need to be added to or modified at all. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 4, 2014 at 21:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ Will support staff be autoclaving these instruments? \$\endgroup\$ Jan 4, 2014 at 21:42
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Olin Lathrop, I have no objection to using a holder, but I do have space constraints. I have anywhere from 20-100 tools to be placed on two tables, each approximately 3 ft x 2 ft. Not all of the tools are unique though, for any given operation, I will have about 10-20 unique tools. \$\endgroup\$
    – user93189
    Jan 4, 2014 at 22:18
  • \$\begingroup\$ @RedGrittyBrick, I use a combination of disposable tools and tools that have been previously used (and have been autoclaved). Each is held in a plastic wrapping until the operation. Ideally, I would like to come up with a way to monitor use of disposable tools as well as reused ones. \$\endgroup\$
    – user93189
    Jan 4, 2014 at 22:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ @DiegoCNascimento, it seems like the consensus is RFID. I've found a manufacturer that makes custom surgical equipment with built-in RFID tags (haldor-tech.com/ORLocate%C2%AE_OR.aspx): something like the Mayo Tray or the Back Tray seems to be what I want. With a little work, it seems entirely reasonable to put one of these together on my own. Any ideas for doing this? \$\endgroup\$
    – user93189
    Jan 5, 2014 at 1:38

2 Answers 2


There are two challenges with using RFID tags, one of which has been covered in the comments.

  1. The tag, presumably, must be autoclavable.

  2. As these tools are metal, the presence of a metal plane so close to the tag will cause problems, or completely prevent operation of normal RFID chips.

As a possible solution, you could use the RFID tags manufactured by Xerafy which are specifically designed for this sort of application and are autoclavable. They implement RFID-on-metal (ROM), so they are designed for tagging metal objects such as surgical tools.

A link to their brochure is here.

There may be other suppliers in this market as well, but this should get you started.

As well as tracking the use of tools, tracking surgical instruments could help prevent them from being misplaced (such as inside a patient).

  • \$\begingroup\$ Can I ask specifically what problem are you trying to solve? How would "tracking your tool use" help you? Are you trying to make sure you have them all back, or trying to assess how long you spend with each one, ...? Tracking your tools is your solution to some problem, and it would help to know what that problem is. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 17, 2014 at 22:56

You could consider using image analysis with a camera positioned over the instrument tray as long as the instruments have distinctive enough shapes.


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