Surgery in Space Could Be Possible with This Tiny Robot

A two-pound surgical robot is headed to the International Space Station in 2024 to test its abilities. The robot will work autonomously, though it can also be operated remotely. It will run through a series of trials, including cutting rubber bands and pushing small rings along a wire. These motions simulate the detailed movements common in surgery. The hope is that the remote surgical robot could someday handle remote surgeries and save the lives of people in isolated locations. Like, for example, removing the appendix of an astronaut on Mars or shrapnel from a soldier in a war zone. 

A surgical robot moves foam cylinders on a pegboard while remotely operated by a man in the background who is looking at a screen
Craig Chandler/University Communication

We learned about the robot from the University of Nebraska’s newsroom Nebraska Today. Its name is MIRA, which stands for Miniaturized In vivo Robotic Assistant (in vivo means something takes place inside a living organism). The surgical robot is the product of a decades-long collaboration between industry and academia. University of Nebraska engineering professor Shane Farritor also co-founded the company Virtual Incision, which raised $100 million to develop MIRA.

MIRA is currently undergoing clinical trials but a NASA grant made it possible to also test it in the zero-gravity environment of the ISS. Farritor’s graduate student Rachael Wagner will work to configure the robot so that it can fit and work inside a microwave-sized box on the International Space Station.

Robotically-assisted surgery has been in use since 1997 to help surgeons perform precise motions. Remotely operated and autonomous versions are the next logical steps. But it does remind us of a recent news item involving a robot not programmed to care about the health and safety of humans. If we can’t even trust a robot to play chess without hurting children, do we want one performing surgery? Would you prefer that or swallowing magnetic slime to remove an abdominal obstruction? Hopefully those aren’t our only options. 

Melissa is Nerdist’s science & technology staff writer. She also moderates “science of” panels at conventions and co-hosts Star Warsologies, a podcast about science and Star Wars. Follow her on Twitter @melissatruth. 

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