(ORDO NEWS) — In the near future, NASA and other space agencies will send astronauts beyond low Earth orbit (LEO) for the first time in more than fifty years.
But unlike the Apollo era, these missions will consist of astronauts spending extended periods on the Moon and traveling to and from Mars (with a few months of ground operations in between).
Apart from this, there is also the planned commercialization of LEO and circumlunar space, which means millions of people could live aboard space habitats and terrestrial settlements far beyond Earth.
This creates many problems, including the possibility that the sick and injured will not have licensed medical practitioners to perform potentially life-saving surgeries.
To solve this problem, Professor Shane Farritor and colleagues at the Nebraska State Innovation Campus (NIC) of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) have developed the In-vivo Miniature Robotic Assistant (MIRA).
In 2024, this portable miniature robotic surgery (RAS) will be sent to the International Space Station (ISS) for a test mission to evaluate its ability to perform medical procedures in space.
Farritor is the David and Nancy Lederer Professor of Engineering at the University of Nebraska, who studied robotics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
As part of his research, he has worked with NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Goddard Space Flight Center, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in support of NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover (MER) program.
This included helping to design and build the Curiosity and Perseverance rovers, determining their travel plans, and inventing a process in which the rover’s solar detectors are used to determine its direction of travel.
In 2006, he and Dmitry Oleinikov, a former University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) professor of surgery, founded the NIC-based startup Virtual Incision.
In April 2022, Farritor was named the first winner of the University of Nebraska Faculty of Intellectual Property Innovation and Commercialization Award for Intellectual Property.
For almost 20 years, Farritor, Oleinikov and their colleagues have been developing the MIRA robotic surgical complex, which has raised over $100 million in venture capital.
NASA recently awarded Virtual Incision a $100,000 grant under the Department of Energy’s Competitive Research Incentive Program (EPSCoR) to help engineers and roboticists at NIC prepare it for testing aboard the ISS.
Compared to conventional robotic surgical units, MIRA offers two advantages. First, its instruments can be inserted through small incisions, allowing doctors to perform minimally invasive surgeries (such as abdominal surgery and colon resections).
Second, the technology could enable telemedicine, where surgeons can perform operations remotely and provide services in locations remote from the medical facility. On Earth, this technology is already enabling doctors to provide care to people in remote places where services are not available.
However, MIRA technology has the added benefit of autonomous operation, which means that astronauts working on the Moon and Mars could receive medical care without the assistance of a human surgeon.
John Murphy, CEO of Virtual Incision, said in a recent company press release:
“The Virtual Incision MIRA platform was designed to bring the mainframe power of a robotic surgical device into a miniature size, with the goal of making the PAC available in any operating room on the planet.
“Working with NASA aboard the space station will test how MIRA can make surgery accessible even in the most remote places.”
Over the next year, Farritor will work with engineering student Rachel Wagner to prepare MIRA for operations aboard the ISS.
Wagner began working with Farritor as an undergraduate student and took up an ion position with Virtual Incision in 2018 after completing her bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering.
This will consist of writing the software, setting up MIRA to be placed in a locker for experiments, and testing the device to make sure it’s tough enough to survive. will be launched aboard a rocket and will function as needed in space.
In August 2021, MIRA successfully performed its first remote surgery as part of a clinical study under the US Research Device Exemption (IDE). Drug Administration (FDA).
The procedure, performed by Dr. Michael A. Jobst at Bryan Medical Center in Lincoln, Nebraska, consisted of a right-sided hemicolectomy (removal of half of the colon). and was performed with a single incision inside the navel.
Dr. Jobst said: “The MIRA platform is a real breakthrough in general surgery and I am thrilled to be the first surgeon in the world to use the system.
“The procedure went smoothly and the patient is recovering. I am excited to be part of the first steps towards expanding access to robotic surgery, which has clear benefits for patients.”
In another experiment, former astronaut Clayton Anderson (a retired NASA astronaut) flew MIRA from the Johnson Space Center, guiding it to perform surgical-like tasks in an operating room at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, located 1,450 kilometers (900 miles) away.
During upcoming tests aboard ISS, MIRA will operate autonomously without the aid of a controller. For this test, the robot will cut tight elastic bands (simulating leather) and pushing metal rings through wire (simulating delicate operations).
“These simulations are very important because of all the data we will be collecting during testing,” Wagner said in a Nebraska news release.
This test will be the robot’s most autonomous operation to date. which is designed to conserve space station communication bandwidth and minimize the time that astronauts spend on the experiment.
However, the purpose of this mission is not to demonstrate the autonomy of the robot (which is still limited), but to regulate the robot’s work in zero gravity. These experiments will help test the technology for future long missions in LEO and beyond.
As Farritor said, “NASA has ambitious plans for long-term space travel and it is important to test the capabilities of the technology. this can be useful during 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 during clinical trials. We’re excited to take it one step further and help define what’s possible in the future as space travel becomes more of a reality for humanity.”
As humans travel farther and farther from Earth, they need to be as self-sufficient as possible. On the Moon, Mars, and other places in deep space, resupply missions are impractical, as is getting 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 bio-regenerative life support systems, and generate electricity locally, they will need to provide basic services such as medical care and surgery.
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