international space station iss

Surgery robot heading to ISS to test operations in space

Image credit: DT

A surgery robot designed to be operated remotely is being sent up to the International Space Station (ISS) and could one day carry out operations on astronauts.

The tiny surgical robot is known as MIRA, short for ‘Miniaturised In vivo Robotic Assistant.”

Its developers at Virtual Incision are currently configuring MIRA to fit inside a space station experiment locker, as well as exhaustively testing it to make sure it’s robust enough to survive a space launch and that its systems will continue to perform as anticipated in space.

Once this has been completed, they will have to wait a year or so for the robot to get its turn aboard the station.

In the future, Nasa hopes to launch a manned trip to Mars which will take about seven months to complete the 480-million  kilometre journey. Over that period, it is possible that astronauts could succumb to many debilitating health problems, especially considering the harsh space environment.

Virtual Incision hopes that its surgery robot could allow experienced doctors on Earth to carry out operations in an emergency in space. It has also been touted as a possible way to remove shrapnel or conduct other surgeries on soldiers in warzones.

MIRA can be inserted through a small incision, enabling doctors to perform abdominal surgery in a minimally invasive manner. In previous tests, surgeons have successfully used the device to perform colon resections.

“Nasa has been a long-term supporter of this research and, as a culmination of that effort, our robot will have a chance to fly on the International Space Station,” said MIRA developer Shane Farritor, professor of engineering at the University of Nebraska.

In a previous experiment, retired Nasa astronaut Clayton Anderson took the robot’s controls while at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, directing MIRA to perform surgery-like tasks in an operating room 900 miles away at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha.

During its upcoming trip aboard the space station, MIRA will work autonomously, without the guiding hand of a doctor or an astronaut. Inside a microwave oven-sized experiment locker, it will cut tautly stretched rubber bands and push metal rings along a wire, gestures that simulate those used in surgery.

“These simulations are very important because of all the data we will collect during the tests,” said engineering graduate student Rachael Wagner.

It will be the most autonomous operation of the robot so far. Although Farritor anticipates MIRA will function on its own in 50 to 100 years, this mission’s goal is not about autonomy but rather to fine-tune the robot’s operation in zero gravity.

The device is being programmed to work autonomously to conserve space station communications bandwidth and to minimise the amount of time astronauts spend with the experiment.

“The astronaut flips a switch, the process starts and the robot does its work by itself,” Farritor said. “Two hours later, the astronaut switches it off and it’s done.”

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