NASA Is Working On An Implantable Surgical Robot For Space Missions

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A nightmare scenario for astronauts on a future mission to Mars involves the sudden need to perform emergency surgery. In anticipation of this, researchers are currently developing a tiny robot that will accompany such missions — one that will perform delicate procedures inside the body.

The robot, which is about the size of a fist, is being developed by researchers from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The project is part of a NASA-funded initiative designed to facilitate research into human space flight.

Here's how it'll work: Should an emergency arise during a space flight, the 0.4 kilogram robot will be inserted into the abdominal cavity via an incision in the belly button. But to create room for it to work, the abdominal cavity will be filled with an inert gas. From there the bot will be controlled remotely (either by a fellow astronaut or by the astronaut him- or herself) to remove an inflamed appendix, cut pieces from a diseased colon, perforate a gastric ulcer, or stop intra-abdominal bleeding caused by trauma.


Image: Preliminary surgical suite test setup for parabolic flight. Credit: University of Lincoln-Nebraska.


The surgical robot itself consists of a torso and two independent arms. Each arm has a two degree of freedom rotational shoulder and elbow joint. Its forearms will be fitted with specialized end effectors, such as a grasper, cautery, or monopolar scissors, depending on the surgical task being performed. Each joint will be powered by a simple DC electric motor with onboard dedicated control hardware. The control hardware will receive instructions via a Linux machine. The surgical interface itself will be comprised of haptic devices, a monitor, and foot pedals.

The design is particularly elegant in that bodily fluids won't float free and contaminate the cabin. Moreover, the surgery can be performed in real-time; given the extreme distances involved, a surgeon located on Earth would have a hell of a time trying to operate the device given the lag.


A prototype currently exists and is being tested on pigs. The researchers are now working on two different devices, one that can withstand all forces experienced during the journey and one that can only operate in a reduced gravity environment.

The details were recently reported at NASA 's Human Research Program Investigators' Workshop (2014). Read it here (pdf).


[ via New Scientist ]