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   from the issue of April 13, 2006

NU robots in 18-day expedition


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

ON A MISSION - Mini-robots developed by UNL and UNMC researchers - such as those pictured at left - are being tested by...
 ON A MISSION - Mini-robots developed by UNL and UNMC researchers - such as those pictured at left - are being tested by aquanauts in Key Largo, Fla. Experiments are being completed 63-feet below sea level in an underwater habitat. Aquanauts spend two hours using the robots to perform actual surgical tasks. Courtesy photo.

The 18-day NEEMO 9 expedition, associated with NASA, is under way 63 feet below sea level at NOAA's Aquarius underwater laboratory, 3.5 miles off Key Largo, Fla. Four aquanauts (the under-sea version of astronauts) are each spending two hours using the robots to perform tasks mimicking real surgical procedures.

The robots were co-designed by Shane Farritor, associate professor of mechanical engineering at UNL, and Dmitry Oleynikov, director of minimally invasive surgery at UNMC.

"These robots, with suggestions from doctors on earth, will allow astronauts to perform emergency surgery in space," said Oleynikov.

As NASA continues to focus on sending astronauts to explore Mars and the moon, surgical needs could be necessary. The underwater NEEMO mission models the isolated environment in which astronauts work. NEEMO stands for NASA's Extreme Environment Mission Operations. It is NASA's ninth NEEMO mission and the longest Aquarius mission ever conducted.

"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 are observing the mission via videoconference and collecting data. Farritor said UNL researchers would study 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 very small incisions, and allow faster recovery for the patient. The mini robots have been the subject of numerous news stories and gained attention since UNL and UNMC began working on them two years ago. The researchers continue to explore new designs and uses for the robots, which are unique.

"Using our mini-robots, an astronaut in outer space could perform a liver biopsy, or even an appendectomy," said Oleynikov.

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

One of the robots 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 very little 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 some day, 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 is a joint project of the Centre for Minimal Access Surgery at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, 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.

The mission builds on the success of the NEEMO 7 mission in October 2004 and will continue to evaluate new medical diagnostic and therapeutic technologies to enhance the delivery of state-of-the-art medical care in remote and harsh environments, as well as develop procedures and techniques for lunar exploration using remotely operated vehicles, tracking systems and navigation devices. A prototype next-generation surgical robot will be evaluated with surgeons at McMaster attempting remote surgical procedures using the robot and a patient simulator in the Aquarius undersea lab.

Aquarius is an "ambient pressure habitat" - its interior atmospheric pressure is equal to the surrounding water pressure. At this depth and pressure, visitors diving down to Aquarius have only about 80 minutes to complete their stay and return to the surface before they risk experiencing decompression related illness. However, the mission crew, known as "aquanauts," can stay indefinitely. They also have nearly unlimited bottom time during their scuba dives out of the habitat, as long as they stay at the same depth. However, the cost of long stays at this pressure is that at the end of a mission, aquanauts must undergo a 17-hour decompression in a chamber within Aquarius itself in order to minimize the risk of decompression sickness.

At the end of decompression, Aquanauts exit Aquarius and scuba dive back to the surface.

Crew journals, live webcam views, images and aquanaut profiles are available online at and at



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