Two Nebraska robotics researchers hope that, one day, astronauts will use their miniature robots to conduct surgery in space.
On May 23, they came a step closer to that aim when retired U.S. astronaut Clayton Anderson took the controls while at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, directing a robot to perform tasks at a facility at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
Anderson and the robot didn’t run a scalpel for surgery — not this time, anyway. Instead, Anderson guided the robot to perform representative tasks such as moving rings across a peg board.
Shane Farritor, an engineering professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and Dr. Dmitry Oleynikov, a professor of surgery at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, have been developing advanced miniaturized robots that are inserted into the body to perform abdominal surgery. Some of their work has been funded by NASA Johnson Space Center and the NASA Nebraska Space Grant with an aim of producing robots that could be used for medical procedures in space. Farritor and Oleynikov also formed Virtual Incision, a University-based start-up company, to commercialize their work.
Farritor was at Anderson’s side in Houston, while Oleynikov supervised activities at the Center for Advanced Surgical Technology at the medical center in Omaha.
Anderson, a Nebraska native, has worked at the Johnson Space Center since 1983. He was selected as a mission specialist in 1998 and spent five months aboard the International Space Station in 2007. He served on a Space Shuttle Discovery mission to resupply the International Space Station in 2010. Since his retirement, he has written about his experiences as an astronaut. “The Ordinary Spaceman” was published in 2015 and his second book, “Space Between My Ears,” will be published in 2018 by University of Nebraska Press. He also has written a children’s book, “A is for Astronaut,” to be published next year by Sleeping Bear Press.
“The long-term goal is to conduct surgery in remote locations and to be able to have intelligence in the robots that would allow surgery to be performed by non-surgeons,” Farritor said.
More than 60 robot prototypes have been produced and extensively tested in bench-top studies, NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations, and a parabolic flight. A Virtual Incision robot was used last year to perform a colon resection in human patients in Paraguay.
Unlike large, mainframe-like robots that reach into the body from outside the patient, the system used in Paraguay features a small, self-contained surgical robot that is inserted through an incision in the patient’s belly button. It avoids the large open incision involved with many surgical procedures today.