Astronauts will undergo surgeries aboard the ISS thanks to an autonomous robot

The autonomous, miniaturized robot could mimic movements used in surgery in space remotely.
Deena Theresa
International Space Station orbiting Earth.3DSculpor/iStock
  • MIRA, short for "miniaturized in vivo robotic assistant", will soon perform surgery aboard the space station.
  • The surgical robot has been in the development stage for the past 20 years.
  • MIRA is currently being programmed to work autonomously to conserve space station communications bandwidth.

An autonomous, miniaturized robot could soon perform simulated tasks that mimic movements used in surgery without the help of doctors or astronauts.

Meet MIRA, short for "miniaturized in vivo robotic assistant". Invented by Nebraska Engineering Professor Shane Farritor, the surgical robot is being readied for a 2024 test mission aboard the International Space Station. For this, NASA recently awarded the University of Nebraska-Lincoln $100,000 through the Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) at the University of Nebraska Omaha.

"NASA has been a long-term supporter of this research and, as a culmination of that effort, our robot will have a chance to fly on the International Space Station," Farritor said in a statement.

MIRA is the product of nearly 20 years; Farritor and his colleagues have been developing the tiny surgical robot for decades. Their company, Virtual Incision, a startup company based on Nebraska Innovation Campus, thus far has attracted more than $100 million in venture capital investment since its founding in 2006.

Astronauts will undergo surgeries aboard the ISS thanks to an autonomous robot
Nebraska Engineering Professor Shane Farritor invented 'MIRA,' a miniaturized robot for remote surgery.

The robot enables doctors to perform surgery in a minimally invasive manner

MIRA has two primary advantages. Firstly, it can be inserted through a small incision, thereby enabling doctors to perform abdominal surgery in a minimally invasive manner. Surgeons have successfully used the robot to perform colon resections in previous tests. Secondly and most importantly, the technology could help surgeons to work remotely - from treating an injured astronaut amid a mission or removing shrapnel from a soldier injured by IED thousands of miles distant.

In a previous experiment, retired NASA astronaut Clayton Anderson took the robot’s controls while at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, directing MIRA to perform surgery-like tasks in an operating room 900 miles away at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha.

Farritor and Rachael Wagner, an engineering graduate student, will write software, configure MIRA to fit inside a space station experiment locker and exhaustively test the device to make sure it’s robust enough to survive launch and its systems will perform as anticipated in space.

Then they will wait for a year or so for the robot to get its turn aboard the space station.

During its trip aboard the space station inside a microwave oven-sized experiment locker, MIRA will cut tautly stretched rubber bands and push metal rings along a wire, gestures that simulate those used in surgery. "These simulations are very important because of all the data we will collect during the tests,” Wagner said.

Astronauts will undergo surgeries aboard the ISS thanks to an autonomous robot
MIRA

Primary goal is to fine-tune the robot's operation in zero gravity

Currently, MIRA doesn't work autonomously; a surgeon is using MIRA as a robotic assistant in surgery.

Though Farritor anticipates that MIRA will function on its own in 50 to 100 years, this mission's goal is to fine-tune the robot's operation in zero gravity, and not autonomy.

The device is currently being programmed to work autonomously to conserve space station communications bandwidth and to minimize the number of time astronauts spend with the experiment.

"The astronaut flips a switch, the process starts and the robot does its work by itself," Farritor said. "Two hours later, the astronaut switches it off and it’s done."

"As people go further and deeper into space, they might need to do surgery someday. We’re working toward that goal," Farritor added.

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