Robotic surgery in space

Category : Editorial

A team of four astronauts are to "splashdown" to an undersea laboratory in the US, to help conduct the first wireless robot-assisted surgery. Meanwhile in Canada - 2000 kilometres away from the operating table - a surgeon prepares to perform the procedures.

This will be the first time that surgical procedures, performed from a vast distance away, will utilise airwaves rather than undersea cables to transmit the information. This proceducre is named NEEMO 7.

Although the procedures, which include a gall bladder removal, will actually be carried out on a surgical training dummy, the NASA experiment is being seen as a crucial proof-of-principle. If the surgery is successful, it is hoped that astronauts will eventually be allowed to receive emergency surgical care while aboard the International Space Station (ISS). Under the sea Surgeon at St Joseph's Hospital in Ontario, will be using the robotic surgical system to control the robot in the Aquarius lab, 19 metres under the sea, in Florida. The surgical system has two robotic arms and an endoscopic arm, which can be controlled by the surgeon from a console of monitors and joysticks.

In future the ISS can be equipped with a telerobot rather than having to bring an astronaut down to Earth when they need surgery as flying an astronaut down is a half-billion dollar decision. But a bigger issue is latency, or signal delay. If the signal is delayed by more than 0.7 seconds, a surgeon will begin to have problems controlling the robot. This should not affect operations on the ISS, but for deeper space missions - such as one to Mars –more autonomous robots would have to be used.                   

The chance of losing the signal is extremely slim, says the surgeon, because of the redundancy built into the radio link up. But if the robot's link was lost the procedure would have to be finished by "telementoring" the astronauts on standby, which is another situation this experiment was set up to explore.

The underwater astronauts will try to carry out several procedures for themselves - such as ultrasonic diagnostics and kidney stone extraction - under the guidance of surgeons on the surface This experiment will help us to understand as to what level of medical background a person needs to be able to carry out medical procedures.


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