April 2, 2014
Robot Surgeon May One Day Travel With Astronauts
Brett Smith for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
As painful as it might be, appendicitis can be remedied by a quick trip to the emergency room. However, that option wouldn’t be available to an astronaut traveling to Mars or some other distant destination.
To remedy this potential problem, engineers at Virtual Incision are about to begin testing a remote-controlled apple-sized robot designed to perform internal surgery in a zero-gravity environment.
Team member Shane Farritor, an engineering professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said the new robot would accompany astronauts into deep space – where the odds of physical trauma are higher than missions in orbit around Earth.
"It must be an emergency if you would consider surgery in space," he told New Scientist's Aviva Rutkin.
At the moment, astronauts are meticulously screened for potential medical issues before departing Earth. On the International Space Station, where all manned missions end these days, an escape capsule is ready in case of emergencies, meaning hospital care is just hours away. Also, some health issues that can happen in space disappear upon returning to Earth. However, NASA has future plans for manned missions to an asteroid and Mars, meaning an escape to Earth isn't an option.
Surgery in space adds multiple complications, such as the potential for bodily fluids floating free in space and contaminating the cabin. Also, space and weight constraints necessitate that medical tools are relatively light, yet capable of handling many kinds of situations.
"Everything that we take for granted, even something as simple as putting a Band Aid down on a table, is difficult in space," Dmitry Oleynikov, a professor of surgery at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, told Rutkin. "That difficulty increases logarithmically when you're trying to do complex procedures such as an operation."
The new robot weighs about 1 pound and has two arms equipped with tools to grab, cauterize and suture tissue. A small video camera sits atop its head and the feed from it is transmitted to a control station, where a human surgeon controls it.
The engineering team said prototypes have carried out a dozen operations in pigs. They added that the next step is to operate in human cadavers, and finally to test the technology in a living human on Earth.
One flaw with the technology is the fact that the further away a spaceship gets, the greater the time delay in sending signals to a robotic surgeon. The company said it wants to avoid this problem by training astronauts to operate on each other.
Commenting on the technology, James Burgess at Carnegie Mellon University said automation of these robots would eventually solve many of these problems.
"You could imagine situations in the future where you can actually dial in a surgery from the ground and it can be put together and performed in space," Burgess told the New Scientist reporter.
The Virtual Incision team recently released a document detailing their plans to test two prototypes in an aircraft flying in parabolic arcs.
“The first device will be able to withstand all forces that will be experienced throughout the flight,” the engineering team wrote. “The second miniaturized device will only be able to operate within a reduced gravity environment.”