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Surgical Robots Suit Up For Space

The da Vinci robot, used by surgeons to fix people, is taking a little trip to space, where it’s going to make it much easier for NASA scientists to fix satellites.

The da Vinci surgical robot has served as a four-armed helping hand for surgeons in operating rooms across the globe. Instead of going in with a scalpel, the da Vinci system translates surgeons’ hand movements into precise robotic actions, allowing them to make tiny, computer-controlled incisions, resulting in less invasive and cleaner procedures. Surgeons have repaired hearts and removed cancerous tumors by controlling the robot from afar, guided by the robot’s 3-D visualization system that gives them a clear look inside their patient. Now, NASA wants the dextrous operating-room superstar to shed its scrubs for a space suit.

Computer engineers like Peter Kazanzides at Johns Hopkins have spent years refining the da Vinci system to be as intuitive as possible for surgeons to use. Now Kazanzides is working with NASA and a group at West Virginia University to replace the somewhat keyboard-based control systems that NASA uses to control space handybots like the Robonaut, with the richly enhanced 3-D interface of the da Vinci master console. "We thought: Rather than control a robot that’s sticking instruments inside a patient, let’s use that same very nice 3-D user environment to control a very different type of robot that’s out in space somewhere," Kazanzides told FastCoExist.

For now, the team is modifying the da Vinci robot so it can be controlled by Earth-bound operators to fix or refuel satellites in space. "You could fly an astronaut out there and have them do any of this stuff, but it’s a costly and risky proposition," Kazanzides says. "These are some of the things we’ve developed on the medical side that we think could be useful in space."

After 20 years spent developing medical robots, Kazanzides is turning his expertise to getting the system to perform in a very different environment, but one that could benefit from the kind of surgical precision at which the da Vinci excels.

For example, the augmented reality software that surgeons today use to mark a virtual "X" on a section of kidney that needs to be excised, could be used to image a broken satellite. Satellites are wrapped in a thermal blanket, so it’s difficult to see what part of them is hidden inside. With the da Vinci system, stock shots of the guts could be overlaid on a real-time image of the space satellite, so the NASA folks would know where to cut.

There are also other tools built into the software, like "virtual rulers" that could add a layer of control, and guide the movement of robot arms. Surgeons use that feature on the da Vinci system to help them stay clear of a sensitive area. "The virtual fixture that keeps you from slicing into the carotid artery could keep you from slamming the robot arm into the satellite," Kazanzides says.

The da Vinci robot that Kazanzides and his team uses is a modified version of the robot that Intuitive Surgical develops and sells commercially. They gutted the insides, refurbished it with custom-built electronics, and use software that the group has been developing over several years. Recently, two graduate students demoed a version of the modified console. Sitting at the John Hopkins campus in Baltimore, they controlled a robot 30 miles away at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt.

The roboticists’ and NASA’s goal with this project, Kazanzides says, is to show that such a system is possible, and works. Eventually, they hope private space companies will make their own versions of the space surgeon, to eventually have their own satellite doctor who NASA can hire on contract. For now, the group has a long way to go in actually putting a lot of the ideas they have into practice and showing they can work. "We need to do a lot of these things on Earth, first," Kazanzides says.