NASA to Send Robotic Surgeon into Space in 2024
After years of financial and technical backing from NASA, scientists from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln have developed a robot called MIRA and are hoping they can add autonomous capabilities to enable it independently perform surgery on humans in space.
MIRA, which is short for Miniaturised In vivo Robotic Assistant consists of a long arm with two prongs and what looks like tweezers at each end.
The machine has already been used to conduct real-life surgery. Last year, surgeons used MIRA to perform colon resections involving a single incision to a patient's navel. However, the robot did not act on its own. Instead, it was controlled via a console by human surgeons.
It may take a while before the robot is ready to autonomously operate on a human patient. So in the meanwhile, it will be charged with simpler tasks such as cutting simulated tissue, rubber bands and pushing metal rings on a wire which use the same range of motion as real surgery. Based on its effectiveness in performing these tasks, the scientists will determine if it’s ready to autonomously operate on a needy crew member.
“It's not ready for real medical procedures as yet, and the orbital experience will help develop the system, getting the machine closer to carrying out its own in-space procedures,” said Shane Farritor, Co-founder and CTO of the start-up tasked with developing the robot.
One of the challenges the development team have to deal with is transporting the prototype to the international space station in one piece. Farritor notes that any backlash or looseness in the joints will affect the robot's accuracy especially because it’s operating in a zero-gravity environment.
So, over the next year, Farritor will be working closely with graduate student Rachael Wagner to develop a prototype that can fit inside a box the size of a microwave and also program the robot to move autonomously.
Once completed, the robot will be able to jump into action with a flip of a switch. Eventually, Farritor hopes MIRA will be able to perform life-saving operations like repairing an astronaut’s ruptured appendix or removing shrapnel from a soldier injured by an explosive deep on the battlefield. But he agrees it could be 50-100 years before this is successfully actualised.
The near-term mission of the robot is to work flawlessly in a zero-gravity environment.
“This mission will be a step toward more advanced medical care for space exploration," Farritor said.