A nonprofit R&D organization, will conduct the first demonstration of a teleoperated surgical robot in a zero-gravity environment this week. The robot is controlled with a special interface by a skilled surgeon hundreds of miles away.
The SRI robotic surgical system is designed to be stored in a very compact space for space travel. Astronauts will reassemble the device for use in the event of illness requiring surgical intervention.
The system was successfully tested underwater in the Aquarius undersea laboratory off the coast of Florida earlier this year. A Canadian surgeon successfully utilized the device to perform a vascular suturing operation from fifteen hundred miles away (see photo).
Now, however, SRI researchers are testing the device in the extreme environment of zero gravity. The tests will be done over a period of four days aboard a NASA C-9 aircraft. The plane undergoes a series of parabolic flight maneuvers that simulates, for a brief period, the microgravity environment of space.
"In previous experiments, SRI successfully demonstrated how robots can be manipulated remotely and set-up with minimal training. We are now extending that technology to movement and weightlessness, critical elements of any space travel program," said Thomas Low, director of SRI's Medical Devices and Robotics program.
SRI-developed software is intended to help the robot compensate for errors in movement that can occur in moments of turbulence or transitions in gravitational field strength. The experiment will compare the same surgical tasks performed by a physician who is physically present on the plane with those performed remotely using the teleoperated robot.
SRI is pioneering other remotely-operated surgical systems; they are working with DARPA on the Trauma Pod Battlefield Medical Treatment System; The trauma pod is used to treat soldiers on the battlefield using advanced diagnostics and teleoperated instruments.
Science fiction writers were arguably the first to imagine such things; the telemedicine apparatus from E.M. Forster's 1909 story The Machine Stops is a very early inspiration to real-life roboticists. More recently, science fiction writer Peter Watts vividly visualized a teleoperated medical mantis that could perform surgery deep beneath the sea's surface.