Could the ISS host the first remote-controlled surgical robot in space?
The International Space Station (ISS) could soon house a new miniaturized surgical robot. This robot, developed by the University of Nebraska Lincoln, not only promises to be helpful in assisting with surgery, but would also allow surgeries to be performed entirely from a distance. While the ISS is scheduled to be retired around 2025, the arrival of this new robot suggests that a few other big things will happen for the space station before retirement.
Background: Meet MIRA
This new surgical robot was developed in part by Shane Farritor, an engineering professor at the University of Nebraska, whose startup, Virtual incision, worked on developing what they call the MIRA (Miniaturized In vivo Robotic Assistant).
Since its inception in 2006, Virtual Incision has accumulated over $100 million in investments. Even more recently, NASA awarded the University of Nebraska-Lincoln $100,000 through the EPSCoR (Program established to stimulate competitive research). With these two funds, Farritor and his team were able to develop MIRA.
MIRA is designed to provide surgical assistance through two different methods. The first concerns how the tiny robot can be inserted into the human body through a small incision, allowing surgeons to perform abdominal or colon surgeries with minimal invasion. The other method allows remote surgery, where MIRA can be controlled remotely. A previous experiment resulted in a successful remote operation, as former NASA astronaut Clay Johnson flew MIRA more than 900 miles away.
Analysis: surgical robot on the ISS
As MIRA prepares to be ready for surgery, the robot may not be quite ready for space just yet. Farritor and his team plan to use next year to test the robot, calibrating it in a new environment. They will also ensure that the robot can survive the launch into space. It requires several simulations for the robot to work. According to a graduate student Rachel Wagner“These simulations are very important because of all the data we will be collecting during testing.”
Once aboard the ISS, MIRA will operate autonomously, acting as a medical assistant. This autonomy will reduce the pressure on the communication systems of the ISS, opening up more room for other experiments. But MIRA is not completely autonomous, relying on others for important clues. As Farritor says, “The astronaut flips a switch, the process starts, and the robot does its job on its own. Two hours later, the astronaut turns it off and it’s done. Although, hopefully While the need for surgery is minimal on board the ISS, having aids like MIRA can make a big difference.
Perspectives: A Future of Space Surgery
Although there is no fixed date for the launch of MIRA, the future need for reliable systems to help facilitate in-space surgery for future missions remains.
“As people go further and further into space,” says Farritor, “they may need to have surgery one day.”
“We are working towards that goal.”
Kenna Hughes-Castleberry is a Debrief Writer and Science Communicator at JILA (a partnership between the University of Colorado at Boulder and NIST). His writing beats include Deep Tech, Metaverse, and Quantum Tech. You can find more of his work on his website: https://kennacastleberry.com/