Robot Completes Surgery in Space

A tiny surgical robot living on a Space Station successfully executed surgery.

Image credits: Virtual Incision (YouTube screenshot)

According to technology engineers who spoke exclusively to CNN, a tiny surgical robot living aboard the International Space Station successfully executed its first surgery demonstration in zero gravity on Saturday.

The Miniaturized In Vivo Robotic Assistant, or spaceMIRA, operated the robot remotely from Lincoln, Nebraska, some 250 miles (400 kilometers) below the surface, carrying out many procedures on simulated tissue at the orbiting laboratory.

This milestone is a significant advancement in technology that may have ramifications not only for safe, extended human space travel, where medical emergencies may arise, but also for expanding access to healthcare in isolated parts of the planet, reports CNN.

The US wants to push space exploration farther, which might lead to years-long missions. According to NASA, a round-way voyage to Mars could take up to two years.

A robotic tool built for space

The robot weighs only 2 pounds (0.9 kilograms), making it a lightweight space instrument due to its compact microwave-size construction. According to Shane Farritor, cofounder and chief technology officer of Virtual Incision, the business that produced spaceMIRA, the tool mimics human movements by using two arms: the left arm for grasping and the right arm for cutting, with a component of the gadget injected into the body to perform surgery.

“It gives smaller hands and eyes to the surgeon (on Earth) and allows them to perform a lot of procedures minimally invasively,” Farritor said, who has been helping to develop the technology for 20 years.

SpaceMIRA hitched a ride on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on January 30 from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Space Force Station and arrived at the space station on February 1.

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How the demo played out

During the demonstration on Saturday, Farritor explained, the remote surgeon had to manipulate the robots' hands to apply strain to the rubber band-based synthetic tissue, and then use the other hand to cut the elastic tissue with scissors. Six surgeons in total conducted remote tests with the robot, and each demonstration—which involved cutting the appropriate piece of tissue under pressure, a typical surgical procedure, according to Farritor—was considered effective.

Latency, or the interval of time between a command being delivered and the robot receiving it, is one of the difficulties in trying to control a robot in space from Earth. Doctor. Michael Jobst, a colorectal surgeon who participated in the spaceMIRA event on Saturday, estimated that the delay was approximately 0.85 seconds.

“In a live patient, if there is bleeding, it’s my job to stop that bleeding immediately. But to have an 800 to 850 millisecond lag between seeing the blood loss and then doing something about it, I mean, effectively that’s like… saying, OK, one Mississippi, two, and then I get to go ahead and fix the problem,” said Jobst, who was one of the first surgeons to use the terrestrial MIRA on humans in clinical studies. He said he has performed a total of 15 operations on human patients with the terrestrial version of MIRA, which is an investigational device not available for sale.

“Five seconds would be an eternity in surgery, and a split second or a half a second is going to be significant. So, this was a big challenge,” Jobst said. Even with the noticeable time delay, the surgeons succeeded in completing the tasks, he said.

SpaceMIRA is set to return to Earth in the spring.

“NASA wants to go further, and the long duration spaceflight will place new demands on medical care in a lot of ways,” said Farritor, who is also a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Nebraska. “There’s a lot of questions that have yet to be answered here. … We just wanted to show what’s possible, and we think it’s a really good step in the right direction.”

With telesurgery, care is more accessible

According to a news release from the University of Nebraska, the results of MIRA are also useful for increasing surgical alternatives on Earth, such as in rural areas or military battlefields.

“There are a lot of places in the US … that don’t have access to specialists, and if you could perform telesurgery like this, where you could have an expert dial in from a larger city into a rural area and assist with some surgical care, I think that’s got huge advantages,” Farritor said.

SpaceMIRA has the same form and function as its Earthbound predecessor, but it is 3 inches (7.6 cm) shorter due to spaceflight restrictions, he said.

Sam Draper
February 23, 2024

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