SRI is collaborating with researchers and surgeons from the University of Cincinnati to evaluate the benefits of robotic surgery on air and space flights. The extreme environment experiments will be performed on September 25 – 28 aboard a NASA C-9 aircraft, which will simulate the microgravity of space and variable gravity of military critical care air transport through parabolic flights. During the flight week, four microgravity flights will be completed, with each flight consisting of 40 parabolas. The microgravity period will last approximately 18 to 25 seconds per parabola.
SRI-developed software will help the robot compensate for errors in movement that can occur in moments of turbulence and transition in gravity. A major component of the experiment is to compare manual surgical tasks conducted by a surgeon with robotic surgery. Both the human surgeon and the robot will be tasked with making incisions on a tissue model and suturing a wound or incision. Post-flight evaluations will compare the precision and speed of procedures performed by hand versus those performed by robot. "SRI is at the forefront of medical robotics technology that can benefit humans in dynamic, moving environments," said Thomas Low, director of SRI's Medical Devices and Robotics program. "In previous experiments, SRI successfully demonstrated how robots can be manipulated remotely and set-up with minimal training. We are now extending that technology to movement and weightlessness, critical elements of any space travel program."
While the possible benefits to the space bound are obvious, the research could also prove beneficial to those of us back on planet Earth. Telerobotic capabilities could be useful for remote battlefield surgery, and care during patient evacuation and transport. The technology may also someday allow time-critical procedures requiring specialized skills to be performed in a moving vehicle, reducing the time between injury and treatment for victims of motor vehicle accidents or natural disasters.
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