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Small Robot Surgeon Designed to Work Inside Astronauts' Bodies

A robotic surgeon that can enter astronauts' bodies will soon have its first zero-gravity test flight

2 min read
Small Robot Surgeon Designed to Work Inside Astronauts' Bodies
Photo: NASA

Tiny medical robots capable of operating inside an astronaut's body could someday provide emergency surgery in space without the mess. A fist-sized robot is scheduled for its first zero-gravity test in the next several months—one small step toward enabling robotic medical attention for humans stuck on deep-space missions lasting for months.

The compact robot is the product of Virtual Incision and researchers from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, according to New Scientist. It's designed to slip inside a person's body through a small belly button incision—not unlike the dreaded robotic "bug" from "The Matrix"—and inflate the patient's abdominal cavity with an inert gas to create room to work. Two arms tipped with multiple tools can perforate gastric ulcers, cauterize and suture wounds, or perform emergency appendectomies.

A human operator would control the robot using two Phantom Omni haptic devices that provide feedback, a monitor, and a foot pedal. Both the surgeon user interface and robot will get a chance to show off human-robotic coordination during a test run aboard a parabolic flight that's designed to mimic zero-gravity by diving to provide the illusion of weightlessness.

Photo: Virtual Incision

Emergency situations requiring the robot's assistance would hopefully be rare. But a presentation at the NASA Human Research Program Investigator's Workshop noted that such medical scenarios have been reported at remote locations during Arctic or Antarctic expeditions and during military submarine service. That suggests future astronauts and other space explorers could benefit from such technology while living at remote moon bases or Mars colonies far from Earth.

Having a small, precise robotic surgeon represents a boon at a time when both room and weight for space exploration missions remains constrained by the cost of rocket launches—a limitation that prevents NASA from readily hauling a da Vinci surgical robot into space. An alternative approach being considered by NASA involves teaching its generalist humanoid robot, named Robonaut, to carry out more basic medical diagnosis and treatment.

The minimal invasiveness of the robotic surgery also offers advantages in a zero-gravity environment where floating blood or other bodily fluids could mean a bad day for everyone. And on the off chance that an astronaut ever gets infected by a chest-bursting, acid-blooded alien, the 2012 film "Prometheus" taught moviegoers that it's always better to have a robotic surgeon on hand rather than wait for the alien to make its unpleasant, if spectacular, exit.

Photos: Astronaut: NASA; Robot: Virtual Incision

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How the U.S. Army Is Turning Robots Into Team Players

Engineers battle the limits of deep learning for battlefield bots

11 min read
Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman

“I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.”

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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