Because surgery in space is almost impossible, there is an escape capsule at the International Space Station. Even accidents and issues that would be relatively minor on Earth could constitute a medical emergency in space. In order to make space medically safer for astronauts, Virtual Incision, a company in Lincoln, Nebraska, is researching ways in which a robot would work from inside a patient to perform surgery. The robot could fix both urgent situations and perform emergency surgeries which have been impossible to do so far.
In conjunction with NASA, Virtual Incision has created a prototype of a small bot which is able to grab things, suture tissue, and cauterize wounds. The mechanical surgeon may physically enter the astronaut through an abdominal incision and work from the interior of any patient. Surgical procedures would then be performed in a manner that would minimize the loss of bodily fluids which could contaminate the cabin of the craft. Once the abdominal cavity has been inflated with gas, the device will have room to maneuver. Tasks such as performing an emergency appendectomy or fixing a perforated ulcer would be possible.
The prototype weighs in at only 0.9 pounds and has two arms outfitted with various tools. The top of the robot holds a camera which will provide any astronaut involved in the space surgery a view of the work being performed inside. The feed from the camera is sent to a control station where a human surgeon can control the procedure using joysticks. While the robot would be remote-controlled at the outset, the current plan would be to train those in space to use the robot for select surgeries. This would alleviate the time lag from a surgeon attempting to control the situation from Earth. The current procedure is to have any astronaut with a medical emergency return to Earth. This delays medical treatment for several hours while the patient utilizes the escape capsule.
Although a window of several hours to deal with any medical emergency is not ideal, it is possible to take care of many issues that arise in this time frame. However, future missions, such as a mission to an asteroid or to Mars, would require a faster resolution than returning the ill or injured patient for treatment. The prototype surgical bot has already undergone testing on pigs. Surgically, the next patients, according to NASA, will be human cadavers. It will also need to be proven on live humans before being sent to space for use by the astronauts.
In order to be able to perform in space, the robot will need to be able to function in zero-gravity. The first such zero-gravity test will be scheduled within the next several months. The equipment will be on an aircraft which will fly in parabolic arcs to simulate the gravity situation. Once airborne, the small bot will need to execute a number of tasks such as manipulating inanimate objects which would include rubber bands. These exercises will allow the machinery the chance to demonstrate its dexterity and abilities.
The long-term view would be for the tiny robot to function more autonomously than it will start out. Instead of being remote-controlled, it is hoped that the machine will be able to be loaded with medical knowledge in order to perform various tasks on its own. Currently though, the item is still a prototype which has only been tested on pigs. In order to be sent to space to perform surgery, the robot still needs to go through testing procedures to make certain that the idea of performing work from inside the astronaut is feasible.
By Dee Mueller
on twitter @TuesdayDG