A remote-controlled surgical robot heads for the International Space Station

In the near future, NASA and other space agencies will send astronauts beyond low Earth orbit (LEO) for the first time in over fifty years. But unlike the Apollo era, these missions will consist of astronauts spending long periods on the Moon and traveling to and from Mars (with a few months of surface operations in between). Beyond that, there is also the anticipated commercialization of LEO and cis-lunar space, which means that millions of people could live aboard space habitats and surface settlements far beyond. of the earth.

This presents many challenges, including the possibility that the sick and injured may not have doctors licensed to perform potentially life-saving surgery. To address this, Professor Shane Farritor and his colleagues at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) Nebraska Innovation Campus (NIC) have developed the Miniaturized in-vivo robotic assistant (MIRE). In 2024, this miniaturized portable robot-assisted surgery (RAS) platform will fly to the International Space Station (ISS) for a test mission to assess its ability to perform medical procedures in space.

Farritor is the David and Lederer Professor of Engineering at the University of Nebraska and studied robotics at MIT. As part of his studies, he worked with NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Goddard Space Flight Center and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in support of NASA. Mars exploration rover (SEA). This was to assist in the design and assembly of Curiosity and Perseverance rovers, defining their movement schedule and inventing a process where the rover’s solar sensors are used to determine its direction of travel.

In 2006, he and Dmitry Oleynikov – a former professor of surgery at the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) – founded Virtual incision, a start-up based at NIC. In April 2022, Farritor was named the first winner of the Faculty Innovation and Intellectual Property Commercialization Award – issued by the University of Nebraska for Intellectual Property. For nearly 20 years, Farritor, Oleynikov and their colleagues have been developing the MIRA robotic surgical suite, which has attracted more than $100 million in venture capital.

Recently NASA awarded Virtual Incision a $100,000 grant through the US Department of Energy (DoE) Program established to stimulate competitive research (EPSCoR) to help NIC engineers and roboticists prepare it for its test aboard the ISS. Compared to conventional robotic surgical suites, MIRA offers two advantages. First, its instruments can be inserted through small incisions, allowing doctors to perform minimally invasive operations (such as abdominal surgery and colon resections). Second, the technology could enable telemedicine, where surgeons can perform operations remotely and provide services in locations far from a medical facility.

On Earth, this technology is already enabling doctors to help people in remote places where services are not readily available. However, MIRA technology has the added benefit of performing operations autonomously, meaning astronauts serving on the Moon and Mars could receive medical attention without the need for a human surgeon. Says John Murphy, CEO of Virtual Incision, in a recent venture Press release:

“The Virtual Incision MIRA platform was designed to deliver the power of a central robotic-assisted surgery device in a miniaturized size, with the goal of making RAS accessible in any operating room on the planet. . Working with NASA on board the space station will test how MIRA can make surgery accessible even in the most remote locations.

Rachael Wagner, a graduate engineering student from Nebraska, adjusts the MIRA surgical robot. Credit: UNL

Over the next year, Farritor will work with graduate engineering student Rachael Wagner to prepare MIRA for operations aboard the ISS. Wagner started working with Farritor as an undergrad and accepted a position with Virtual Incision in 2018 after earning her bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. This will consist of writing software, configuring MIRA to fit in a proving rack, and testing the device to ensure that it is robust enough to survive a rocket launch and that it will operate as needed in space.

In August 2021, MIRA has successfully performed its first remote surgery in a clinical study under an Investigational Device Exemption (IDE) from the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The procedure – performed by Dr. Michael A. Jobst at Bryan Medical Center in Lincoln, Nebraska – involved a right hemicolectomy (where half of the colon is removed) and was performed with a single incision in the naval. Said Dr Jobst:

“The MIRA platform is a truly breakthrough platform for general surgery, and it is extremely rewarding to be the first surgeon in the world to use the system. The operation went well and the patient is recovering well. I am excited to play a part in the first steps towards improving access to robot-assisted surgery, which has clear benefits for patients.

In another experiment, former astronaut Clayton Anderson (a retired NASA astronaut) operated MIRA from Johnson Space Center, ordering him to perform surgical-type tasks in an operating room at the Johnson Space Center Medical Center. the University of Nebraska – located 1450 km (900 miles) away. . In its next test aboard the ISS, MIRA will operate autonomously without the aid of a controller. For the purposes of this test, the robot will cut taut rubber bands (simulating skin) and push metal rings along a thread (simulating delicate operations).

Shane Farritor and the MIRA surgical robot in the group’s Nebraska Innovation Center office and lab. Credit: Craig Chandler/UNL

“These simulations are very important because of all the data we will collect during testing,” Wagner said in a Nebraska News statement. This test will be the robot’s most autonomous operation yet, which aims to conserve the space station’s communications bandwidth and minimize the time the astronauts spend with the experiment. However, the purpose of this mission is not to demonstrate the robot’s autonomy (which is still limited) but to refine the operation of the robot in weightlessness. These experiments will help validate the technology for future long-duration missions within and beyond LEO. As Farritor said:

“NASA has ambitious plans for long-duration space travel, and it is important to test the capabilities of technology that can be beneficial on missions measured in months and years. MIRA continues to push the boundaries of what is possible in RAS, and we are pleased with its performance so far in clinical trials. We are excited to go further and help identify what might be possible in the future as space travel becomes more of a reality for humanity.

As humans travel further and further from Earth, they will need to be as self-sufficient as possible. On the Moon, Mars, and other places in deep space, resupply missions are impractical, as is flying doctors or patients to and from those places. This means that in addition to being able to grow their own food, use local resources to meet their needs (ISRU), rely on bioregenerative life support systems and generate electricity locally, they will need to provide essential services such as medical care and surgery.

Further reading: Nebraska today, Virtual incision

Christine E. Phillips