Space-faring robot is designed to crawl inside you during surgery

As humanity prepares to establish the first human colonies beyond the bounds of Earth's atmosphere, a whole new world of problems are cropping up. Chief among them: how to keep people alive when the nearest hospital is millions of miles away. Doctors will likely make up a part of each new colony, but there isn't a doctor yet trained who specializes in zero-G surgery.

The possibility of someone getting injured while outside the pull of Earth's gravity is what inspired engineering professor Shane Farritor and his colleagues at the University of Nebraska to design a space-friendly surgical robot. With two pairs of robotic arms, each about the size of an apple, the robot surgeon is designed to perform difficult operations while in transit from one world to another. Being under the robot's knife, however, could have you feeling like you're the unwilling subject of an alien abduction.

To perform delicate surgeries, like removing an appendix or cutting away diseased parts of your colon, you'll first have to be completely immobilized. Then the robot doctor will have to create a work space for itself, actually inflating a cavity within your flesh with inert gas so that it can move about under your skin. This process ensures that your vital fluids don't leak out into the delicate environment in your spacecraft and also keeps your organs from floating off when an incision is made.

The robot arms can theoretically be controlled via telepresence by trained doctors back on Earth. There's a small video camera mounted between the robot's arms which gives the Earth-side surgeons an inside view of your ailing organs. Sensors mounted on the robot also send haptic feedback to the surgeon's controls if the arm hits your skin or organs as it moves about inside you.

So far, the robot has already been tested on a number of slabs of test pork, but has yet to perform in zero gravity. The next step for Farritor and his team is to board NASA's vomit comet and see how the robot fares when in its theoretical work environment. You'd have to be truly desperate to think of undergoing surgery while outside the pull of gravity, but it's nice to know that the option will soon exist if you need it.

University of Nebraska (PDF), via New Scientist

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