Sometimes bad things happen at bad times. Sometimes these bad things call for immediate medical attention. Luckily, in urban areas, an ambulance is usually a phone call and a short wait away. But when orbiting the Earth miles away from its surface, this luxury isn’t quite yet available.
Though currently astronauts do have an available escape capsule available for certain emergencies, the transport time is still hours until they are on their home planet. And in situations that demand quicker response, the capsule is of little help.
Virtual Incision in Lincoln, Nebraska has developed a tool that will, hopefully, be the solution for astronauts who are in emergency situations requiring surgeries. They have developed a small lightweight surgical robot that weighs in at 0.4 kilograms, equipped with two tool-loaded arms and a small video camera. It is being prepared for its first zero-gravity tests and cadaver tests, already proving successful in performing surgeries in pigs.
In order for the robot to perform surgeries, it will be inserted into the body through an incision in the navel, and then will create a pocket of inert gas in the abdominal cavity to provide space to work. The robot will be able to perform various necessary operations, such as removing an appendix or cutting a piece from a diseased colon.
While the tool is equipped for surgery, it is not yet able to perform the surgeries independently. Remote-control from Earth would experience far too much communication delay to work. But James Burgess, from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, thinks that programming the units with instructions for surgeries could provide the answer. “You could imagine situations in the future where you can actually dial in a surgery from the ground and it can be put together and performed in space,” says Burgess.