In this week’s video and podcast, we talked about the present and future of robotic surgery, alluding to the possibility of space-bound surgical robots to operate on astronauts in emergencies. We spoke in terms of possibilities, only to find out just this week that there’s a real-world prototype in the works.
On Tuesday, New Scientist reported the ongoing development of a small surgical robot designed for use in space. The device is the work of a Nebraska-based company called Virtual Incision. As with other surgical robots, the goal is to insert tools into the body through small incisions (in this case, through the belly button) and perform surgery with minimal damage to the external tissue. So-called “minimally invasive” surgery like this is a great thing for medical science in any case, because it leads to quicker recovery times and less pain. But it’s useful for a different reason in space, where microgravity conditions acting on a traditional, large-incision open surgery could mean a spacecraft full of little floating globules of body fluids.
But there are problems with sending surgical robots into space. Existing bots like the da Vinci line tend to be large and heavy. And when you’re trying to get into space, mass is a serious liability. In the past, it has often cost in the neighborhood of $10,000 per pound to launch cargo into space (though the ongoing development of private space launches should, hopefully, be able to bring those costs down in a reliable way)
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. At that rate, if your surgical robot weighs, for example, just 100 pounds, that’s a million dollars in launch costs — not to mention the physical space it would take up in the already-cramped living quarters of an exploration vehicle or space station. The new system, in contrast, is “fist-sized” and weighs 0.4 kilograms (less than 1 pound). That’s about the same mass as a regulation American football.
Like other surgical robots of today, this prototype is not an autonomous robot — it’s a system of robotic tools that will be controlled directly by a human operator. In the case of deep space travel, this human operator would probably have to be another astronaut, meaning space travelers would need to be trained to use the device to operate on one another. That seems like a lot to ask of astronauts who already have to undergo incredible amounts of training and preparation. One solution to this problem would be telesurgery — the idea that the person controlling the robot doesn’t actually have to be in the same room. The operator could potentially control the device electronically from another city — or even another continent. But once you get deep into space, telesurgery controlled by someone on Earth probably isn’t an option, because the distance between the doctor and the patient would mean an insurmountable communications delay imposed by the speed of light. Surgeons need to be able to see what they’re doing in real time. A delay of just one second in the visual feedback could be dangerous. But if you’re trying to operate on someone aboard a satellite orbiting Mars, it could take more than 20 minutes for information to travel each way. That’s obviously a non-starter for emergency surgery, and I don’t think we’re going to be communicating faster than light anytime soon.
So telesurgery is probably out — but is there another way around forcing astronauts to become ad-hoc surgeons?
Well of course. The answer is autonomy — the ability to perform the surgery without human input. But that’s also a tall order. It’s one thing getting robots to visually recognize objects and handle them gently when those objects are colored blocks or pieces of fruit. When you’re talking about someone’s internal organs, a less-than-perfect guidance algorithm could be deadly. Yet autonomous surgical robots are not out of the question. Right now, researchers on the cutting edge of robot-assisted surgery are exploring which particular sub-tasks might be safely and effectively designated for autonomous robotic execution. So while a human surgeon would still supervise the procedure and perform many direct-control operations, the robot might be able do things like suturing or debridement (removal of dead or damaged tissue) by itself. Of course, the more sub-tasks these robots take over, the closer they come to full procedural autonomy. It’s difficult to say how far away such a safe and reliable capability would be. If it’s sooner rather than later, it could make a big difference on Earth, but an even bigger difference beyond.
Topics in this Post: medical technology, Stuff We Kind of Like, nasa