Imagine a day when an explorer on Mars suffers a medical emergency, and the nearest surgeon is 35 million miles away.
Returning to Earth for treatment would take months, so preparations are being made to fix medical problems in space — and University of Nebraska researchers are working on the first step to a possible solution.
Three University of Nebraska-Lincoln students and a University of Nebraska Medical Center fellow went up on a roller coaster-like test flight with NASA last month. The flight gave the team up to 30 seconds at a time in low and zero gravity to see how miniature robots, designed to perform minimally invasive surgery, responded to the conditions.
The experiment is part of a NASA grant to develop medical technology in line with the space agency’s goals to send manned missions farther into space in the coming decades. NASA has outlined plans for a trip to an asteroid by 2025 and a yearslong mission to Mars in the 2030s.
The ultimate goal is an autonomous robot that knows how to perform surgery without an operator.
But in the short term, the Nebraska researchers’ task was to direct the robot to cut rubber bands, simulating how the robot would manipulate tissue during surgery in zero gravity.
The robots are being developed for astronauts’ injuries or ailments that can’t wait months for help to arrive, and to function in a bubble that would keep blood in and contaminants out during a procedure.
The technology is well- developed but years from implementation in space, said Dmitry Oleynikov, a professor of surgery at UNMC. The big question to answer last month was the most basic: Can an astronaut in zero gravity perform basic robotic tasks?
“It may seem like a small thing, but there will be orientation issues. We have to study how their movement and the robot’s movements match,” Oleynikov said.
Tom Frederick, a UNL doctoral student in miniature surgical robotics who went on the test flight, said more analysis will come after researchers are able to review video of each test run.
Still, initial indications are positive. The robot survived the flight, and the biggest lesson learned was the need for a different type of harness to keep the operator of the robot still.
“I can definitely see this going to space, some technology like this,” Frederick said.
The robotics used in the NASA-sponsored experiment last month are the result of a decade of collaboration between UNL and UNMC faculty on surgical robotics. The main differences between their robotics technology and what’s already available on the market are size and expense, said Shane Farritor, a UNL professor in mechanical materials engineering.
“The robots that are used for this type of surgery (now) are two million bucks and as big as a refrigerator,” Farritor said. “That makes the cost profile difficult for those procedures, and certainly makes it hard to fly into space and carry with you on your belt.”
Farritor and Oleynikov have formed a company called Virtual Incision to commercialize the technology, by which a smaller incision allows for faster recovery time than traditional surgical methods.
They hope to do human trials overseas next year using the remote-controlled robotics for colon resection surgery, Farritor said, and they are also working with the Department of Defense to look into remote use in war situations. In those situations, he said, remote surgeons could deploy the robots and give lifesaving treatment from outside the battlefield.
For the space mission, though, the ultimate goal is robots that don’t need a human hand to guide them, even remotely. A signal can take up to 20 minutes to get from Earth to Mars and back.
“The concept of a remote control doesn’t work on a Mars environment,” said Baraquiel Reyna, deputy manager of Exploration Medical Capabilities Element in NASA’s Human Research Program. “For all our medical capabilities, we’d like to go to more of a hands-off and more of an autonomous approach.”
Farritor said researchers, like NASA, have long-range goals, and automating the robots is a long way down the road.