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Meet Your Future Space Surgeon

It'll operate from the inside out, so blood and guts won't float around the space station.
Image: Virtual Incision

If we’re ever going to have lunar or Martian colonies, we’re going to need a way to keep ourselves alive if emergency situations happen. So far, NASA has been exceedingly lucky that no astronauts have ever had to be rushed back to Earth for an emergency appendectomy or gallbladder removal or something. But soon, if the situation arises, robots might be able to perform a surgery and let the astronaut go about their day.

NASA and researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln are working on developing remote-controlled, miniature robots that can be inserted into a person’s belly button to perform general surgeries such as appendectomies, ulcer perforation, and internal bleeding repair.


As you might expect, the technology was originally developed to be used here on Earth to make incisions necessary to perform basic surgeries on smaller scales. Standard, open surgery isn’t very feasible in space—you can’t have organs and blood floating outside of a person’s body while you’re trying to operate on them, so it’s easy to see why NASA would be interested in a robot that can perform surgery from the inside out.

“While this work is in an early phase, the minimal invasiveness of this approach could enable its use in remote locations such as on a moon or Mars colony,” Shane Farritor, one of the University of Nebraska researchers working on the technology, wrote in a paper describing its potential. “The robot can facilitate minimally invasive surgical resection of abdominal emergencies … although the likelihood of these accidents is low, it has been reported on other remote locations including North Pole expeditions and submarine service.”

Farritor, who has turned his research into a commercial company called Virtual Incision, is right—a study found that, of the 742 crew members who have flown on NASA’s 30-year space shuttle program, there were only 29 cases of infectious disease transmission. No one has ever needed surgery in space. On that fact, NASA has been lucky. But there have been cases—Russian surgeon Leonid Rogozov, who performed an appendectomy on himself in the 1960s in Antarctica and American Jerri Nielsen who performed a breast biopsy on herself in Antarctica in 1998 come to mind—where people in extreme locations have had to operate on themselves in emergencies. But, remove gravity from the situation, and you have an entirely different set of circumstances.

The device working on a pig's colon. Image: Virtual Incision screengrab

The robot has an “eye” and two arms that can be controlled by a surgeon either on Earth or in space, and has already been tested in pigs. Farritor is hoping to do human trials on Earth this year, with a goal of getting FDA approval sometime in 2015.

“The surgeon will control the system basically using fancy joysticks and some sort of user interface console,” he said in a presentation explaining the technology last year.

Assuming it works on Earth, the team will quickly move to zero gravity tests, and they’re already planning on testing the device on a zero gravity flight sometime in 2015. How that’s going to work is still up in the air—parabolic flights can only simulate weightlessness for about 30 seconds at a time, and performing any type of surgery is going to take much longer than that. The only way to truly test it might be on the space station itself.