NASA to Test Portable Robot Surgeon

The Associated Press
Thursday, April 19, 2007; 2:36 AM

SEATTLE -- Doctors and scientists from the University of Washington will get a glimpse of what it would be like to do remote surgery in space when a portable medical robot they created will be tested next month in an underwater environment designed by NASA to simulate zero gravity.

The portable robot, which can be controlled over the Internet by a human surgeon many miles away, is being developed with money from the U.S. Defense Department to be used to treat wounded soldiers on a battlefield, to perform complicated surgery on patients in remote areas of the developing world and to help sick astronauts in space.

The difference between the robot surgeon demonstrated at the University of Washington on Wednesday and others that are being used today in American hospitals involves portability and communications, said Professor Blake Hannaford, co-director of the UW BioRobotics Lab.

All the portable parts of this device weigh about 50 pounds and can be transported and reconstructed by non-engineers at remote sites. Robot surgeons currently being used in hospitals weigh several thousand pounds, are not portable and can't be easily broken down and reconstructed.

Current medical robots also were not designed to be controlled from miles away.

When the mobile surgical robot called Raven is in the Aquarius Undersea Laboratory off the coast of Florida, its robotic arms holding surgical instruments will be operated by doctors in Seattle sitting in front of a computer screen and holding onto moveable metal arms.

The experiment will involve sewing up a tear in a rubber tube that is being used as a simulated blood vessel. The surgeons will also do a skill test used to judge student doctors.

The surgeons' digital instructions will travel over a commercial Internet connection from Seattle to Key Largo, Fla., and then through a wireless connection to a buoy, which is connected by cable to the submarine-like research pod about 60 feet underwater. Two NASA astronauts and a NASA flight surgeon will be in the underwater pod with the robot.

Mitchell Lum, a research assistant and electrical engineering Ph.D. candidate, said an expected time delay of up to a second _ between the surgeon's digital instructions and movement of the robot's arms _ should be the most challenging part of the experiment.

"We think they will take longer to complete the tasks but we don't think it's undoable," Lum said.

In zero gravity, both the robot and the patient will have to be immobilized, and doctors will have to deal with the different ways organs and bodily fluids move without gravity, explained Dr. Mika Sinanan, a professor in the department of surgery at the UW Medical Center who has been working closely with the project and demonstrated the robot for reporters on Wednesday.

The researchers said a major goal of the underwater experiment is to show that the robot can be dismantled, transported and set up by non-engineers in the zero gravity environment.

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