NASA to send prototype robot surgeon into space

Dammit Jim, I'm a piece of autonomous equipment, not a doctor

NASA is funding research to build an autonomous robot gripper theoretically capable of performing medical surgery, and which is to be launched to the International Space Station in 2024.

The machine, named MIRA, will be developed by engineers at Virtual Incision, a startup spun out of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in the US. Co-founder and CTO Shane Farritor, also a professor of engineering, and his colleagues have been tinkering with the system for nearly 20 years.

MIRA, which stands for Miniaturized In vivo Robotic Assistant, is made up of a long arm with two prongs that have what look like tweezers at each end. Last year, surgeons successfully used the device to conduct colon resections involving a single incision to a patient's navel.

You can see what it looks like in the video below:

Youtube Video

In operating theaters on Earth, MIRA is controlled by human surgeons in near-enough real-time from a console.

In orbit, MIRA will have to work mainly by itself although not on some brave test patient. It will instead be tasked with operating autonomously on much simpler, boring tasks, such as cutting rubber bands and pushing metal rings on a wire, which simulate the motions used in real surgery. That will test whether it will one day be feasible to use this kind of autonomous tech to repair a 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. Presumably it's infeasible for the robot to be controlled from Earth – especially if a mission is way out in deep space – hence the need for the equipment to perform movements by itself.

"We expect the robot to behave differently in space," Farritor told The Register. "Any backlash or looseness in the joints will lead to inaccuracy in a zero-gravity environment."

The team will have to figure out how to package and store its robot carefully to make sure the hardware makes it to the floating space lab in one piece. Over the next year, Farritor will pair up with engineering graduate student Rachael Wagner to build an early prototype designed to fit inside a box about the size of a microwave and will write software for the robot to move autonomously.

"The device will be mounted inside an express locker used to hold experiments on the station," he said.

MIRA was tested by retired NASA astronaut Clayton Anderson, who sat at a console in the Johnson Space Center in Houston and controlled a device 900 miles away in a operating room at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha. The prototype in space will not rely on any communications with operators back home to perform its tasks, however.

"The astronaut flips a switch, the process starts and the robot does its work by itself," Farritor said in a statement, referring to the planned experimentation on the ISS. "Two hours later, the astronaut switches it off and it's done."

He hopes MIRA will eventually – and we're talking 50 to 100 years, here – be able to automatically perform life-saving medical procedures on astronauts, who might (say) be suffering from a ruptured appendix on a trip to Mars. The portable machine could be stored on a spaceship to be used in case of emergencies.

The near-term mission for MIRA, however, isn't learning to perform surgery automatically, it's being able to operate correctly in zero-gravity conditions. "This mission will be a step toward more advanced medical care for space exploration," Farritor told us. ®

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