The December 2022 issue of IEEE Spectrum is here!

Close bar

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

The Conversation (0)

The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

Keep Reading ↓Show less