The fist-sized robot, a product of Virtual Incision in Lincoln, Nebraska, will have its first zero-gravity test – in an aircraft flying in parabolic arcs – in the next few months. While aloft, the surgery bot will perform a set of exercises to demonstrate its dexterity, such as manipulating rubber bands and other inanimate objects.
The hope is that such robots will accompany future astronauts on long deep-space missions, when the chances are higher that someone will experience physical trauma. "It must be an emergency if you would consider surgery in space," says team member Shane Farritor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
For now, the only humans in space venture no further than the International Space Station. Astronauts are carefully screened for health issues before leaving Earth, and the ISS has an escape capsule standing by in case of emergencies, so home is just hours away. Many worrisome health issues that can occur in space return to normal back on Earth. But NASA has plans for human missions to an asteroid and eventually Mars, and getting home quickly won't be an option.
Surgery in space would be extremely difficult. Without gravity, it is easy for bodily fluids like blood to float free and contaminate the cabin. And space capsules can only carry a certain amount of weight, so medical tools need to be relatively light but capable of handling many kinds of situations.
"Everything that we take for granted, even something as simple as putting a Band Aid down on a table, is difficult in space," says Dmitry Oleynikov at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. "That difficulty increases logarithmically when you're trying to do complex procedures such as an operation."
Virtual Incision has been working on its design for a few years. The latest version weighs 0.4 kilograms. It has two arms loaded with tools to grab, cauterise and suture tissue, and its head is a small video camera. The feed relays to a control station, where a human surgeon operates it using joysticks.
Prototypes have performed several dozen procedures in pigs. The team says the next step is to work in human cadavers and then test the technology in a living human on Earth.
Remote-operated technologies would have a disadvantage in space, because the further away a spaceship gets, the greater the time delay in communications signals. Virtual Incision hopes to avoid this problem by training astronauts to perform procedures on each other.
"You could imagine situations in the future where you can actually dial in a surgery from the ground and it can be put together and performed in space," says Burgess.