Researchers have developed a fist-sized robot surgeon that slides into the body through an incision in the belly button and can help perform surgery on astronauts in deep space. After the robot enters the abdominal cavity – which has been filled with inert gas to make room for it to work – the robot can remove an ailing appendix, cut pieces from a diseased colon or perforate a gastric ulcer.
The robot, developed by Virtual Incision in Lincoln, Nebraska, will have its first zero-gravity test – in an aircraft flying in parabolic arcs – in the next few months, ‘New Scientist’ reported. While aloft, the robot will perform a set of exercises to demonstrate its dexterity, such as manipulating rubber bands and other inanimate objects. The hope is that such robots will accompany future astronauts on long deep-space missions, when the chances are higher that someone will experience physical trauma.
“It must be an emergency if you would consider surgery in space,” said team member Shane Farritor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Surgery in space would be extremely difficult. Without gravity, it is easy for bodily fluids like blood to float free and contaminate the cabin. Also, space capsules can only carry a certain amount of weight, so medical tools need to be relatively light but capable of handling many kinds of situations. Virtual Incision has been working on its design for a few years.
The latest version weighs 0.4kg and has two arms loaded with tools to grab, cauterise and suture tissue, and its head is a small video camera. The feed relays to a control station, where a human surgeon operates it using joysticks. Prototypes have performed several dozen procedures in pigs.
The team said the next step is to work in human cadavers and then test the technology in a living human on Earth. Remote-operated technologies would have a disadvantage in space, because the further away a spaceship gets, the greater the time delay in communications signals. Virtual Incision hopes to avoid this problem by training astronauts to perform procedures on each other.