Nebraska Engineering Fall, 2006
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NU Surgical Robots in Underwater Expedition

Nicole Stott
Nicole Stott, an astronaut and aquanaut with the NEEMO 9 mission, works with surgical robots developed by NU. The miniature surgical robots have the capability of vision feedback and task assistance from on-board cameras and manipulators.

U.S. and Canadian government agencies used tiny surgical robots developed by University of Nebraska researchers in an underwater mission April 3-20, training doctors to perform surgery in remote locations, including outer space.

The 18-day NEEMO 9 expedition, associated with NASA, took place 63 feet below sea level in an underwater habitat 3.5 miles off Key Largo, Fla. Four aquanauts (the undersea version of astronauts) each spent two hours using the robots to perform tasks mimicking real surgical procedures. NEEMO stands for NASA’s Extreme Environment Mission Operations. It was NASA’s ninth NEEMO mission and the longest Aquarius mission ever conducted.

The robots were co-designed by Shane Farritor, associate professor of mechanical engineering, and Dmitry Oleynikov, director of minimally invasive surgery at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

Farritor said that as NASA sends more astronauts to explore Mars and the moon, surgical needs could arise during expeditions. The underwater mission models the isolated environment in which astronauts work. “We want to demonstrate that robots are useful in these situations,” said Farritor, who trained the NEEMO 9 crew to use the robots.

Farritor, research assistant professor Steve Platt and graduate students Mark Rentschler, Jason Dumpert, Kyle Berg and Amy Lehman observed the mission via videoconference and collected data. Farritor said UNL researchers are studying how long each procedure took and whether scientists performed tasks efficiently. The information may help them improve the robots or training methods.

The lipstick tube-sized mini surgical robots enter the body through laparoscopic instruments, which require tiny incisions and allow faster recovery for the patient. The mini robots have been featured in numerous news stories since UNL and UNMC began working on them two years ago. The researchers continue to explore new designs and uses for the robots.

One of the assigned tasks for the NEEMO 9 aquanauts was using the mini-robots to perform a laparoscopic appendectomy on a surgical dummy. The mission also was an experiment in telementoring. Through live videoconferencing, Oleynikov gave the crew instructions to perform the appendectomy using two of the mini-robots for assistance.

One robot has a camera that tilts and pans. The other robot is mobile and can be directed to move within the abdominal cavity. Both give the surgeon better views of the abdomen than traditional laparoscopic cameras, which have limited mobility.

Platt said robots have potential for use in other remote locations, such as battlefields or rural areas.

“The ability to bring surgical capabilities to areas that are not accessible holds great promise for this technology,” Platt said.

Farritor said that someday, doctors could use robots to perform surgery off-location.

“Getting expertise in foreign environments is very useful, and I think these robots have a lot of potential in space and on Earth,” he said.

The NEEMO 9 mission was a joint project of the Centre for Minimal Access Surgery at McMaster University, University of Nebraska Center for Advanced Surgical Technology, the U.S. Army Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center, the National Space Biomedical Research Institute and NASA.

-Ashley Washburn