NASA is training its robots to handle more than mundane mechanical repairs and instead perform life-saving surgeries for astronauts.
Surgeons are skilled at performing complex and delicate surgeries. However, they are still prone to sleep deprivation and fatigue which can affect their performance before an operating table. Doing a surgical procedure in space presents even more demands. Zero gravity and the unique challenges in that environment can heighten the risk for errors even for expert surgeons on Earth.
Now, NASA wants to minimize the risk by turning its robots into space surgeons.
By using robotic technology over the years, the space agency says robots can help or even eventually replace humans without having to worry about fatigue, jitters, homesickness or similar human factors.
Right now, NASA says the robots can handle simple tasks such as cleaning, monitoring air flow and grasping certain objects. Soon they will be deployed for satellite repairs instead of sending an astronaut out on a space walk. So far, one robot has been doing basic tasks in the International Space Station, and another is being trained in NASA's labs to check a pulse of a dummy patient using ultrasound and then injecting a vein using precise moves.
NASA plans for the robots to eventually perform more complex operations such as endovascular surgeries. In the short term, NASA wants these robots to become extensions of surgeons who operate them from Earth or from another ship. A prototype robot has been developed by researchers at the University of Nebraska that enters the abdomen through the belly button and then perform appendectomies or control gastrointestinal bleeding, such as in cases of intestinal rupture or trauma suffered by an astronaut.
"The idea is for him to be the best medic, nurse and physician," Dr. Zsolt Garami of the Houston Methodist Hospital, told the BBC. "Our plan is to use Robonaut as a telemedicine doctor in remote areas."
Human operators will control the robot from Earth using a virtual reality console. The robots will have cameras and sensors on its robotic arms to guide the operator with every movement the machine makes. NASA says it still tweaking the technology for the robot to mimic the precise movements of the operator.
The space agency is using its know-how on endoscopic surgery first developed from its Automated Endoscopic System for Optimal Positioning (AESOP) program by California-based Computer Motion, Inc. and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, as well as its ZEUS Robotic Surgical System which lets surgeons perform smaller incisions and assume a more comfortable position while performing surgeries.
However, working between Earth and space creates lag between commands from the operator and the actual execution of movements by the robot in space. That can be risky since a few seconds delay could mean harm to the patient. A proposed solution is for the robots to be controlled by astronauts already in orbit. At this stage, the robot surgeons can only act as helpers or tools for human surgeons. However, they may become more independent as advances in robotic surgery continue.
Computer-assisted surgical robots have been in use for quite a while. They offer minimally invasive, effective surgical outcomes. But so far, all these machines have been used in terra firma, but with Robonaut and its subsequent iterations, NASA wants to bring that technology to the so-called final frontier.