It’s not often that you meet a medical doctor/aerospace technician, but that’s just what NASA hopes to make out of its ever versatile Robonaut 2 (R2). Already designed to perform maintenance on the space station, R2 is now being “taught” to perform medical procedures as well. The hope is that by controlling R2 from Earth, surgeons who can’t make a house call to the space station could still attend to sick or injured astronauts remotely.
Dr. Zsolt Garami of the Houston Methodist Research Institute is currently administering R2’s crash course in medicine. From a training perspective, Dr. Garami says he is able to accomplish more with R2 in an hour than he can with his human students in a week. This means that the next time your know-it-all buddy in med school talks about some lab study he nailed, you can remind him how much faster R2 could have done it. All tests were done using the ground version of R2, which is completely identical to the one currently aboard the space station.
The video below shows R2 performing an ultrasound and an injection on a dummy that looks like it was modeled after King Tut’s coffin.
Since the medical resources on the space station are relatively limited, all of the astronauts there are trained in basic surgery and elementary medical treatment should anybody get sick or injured. R2’s ability to be controlled remotely could relieve our astronauts of this particular responsibility. By accessing the camera built into R2’s head, Earthbound medical professionals would be able to see everything that R2 does.
Should a medical emergency occur on the space station, a surgeon on Earth could command R2 could to treat the patient. We still don’t know if a given doctor’s charming bedside manner would translate through R2’s lifeless Robocop face. (NASA)
So far, R2 can only perform procedures under direct command of an actual human, but Dr. Garami hopes the robot could someday learn to do some tasks on its own – a breakthrough that would bring it even closer to Luke Skywalkers preferred medical droid 2-1B.
What are some potential limits to R2’s medical applications? If R2 can now perform space station maintenance and medical procedures, what’s another profession we could add to his resume? How soon until we see an all-robot version of Grey’s Anatomy?