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This Tiny Droid Can Perform Surgery On Astronauts In Space

A lot of futuristic video games (and science fiction works, for that matter), tend to feature automated doctors as central elements of the character's health. Equipped with a full repertoire of surgical skills and an encyclopedic knowledge of medical conditions and procedures, these devices are your character's one-stop shop for whatever ails them. Today, we've taken a step towards making such fantastical machines a reality.

NASA has recently been toying with the idea of sending robotic doctors into space with their astronauts, ensuring that if any of their spacebound staff require surgical aid, they'll be able to seek it with minimal risk. Working in collaboration with medical robotics firm Virtual Incision in Lincoln, Nebraska, the space agency has already developed a prototype auto-doc. 

At the moment, such astronauts are out of luck, as skilled surgeons and doctors aren't necessarily a common sight on space stations. Because of this, humans in space generally venture no farther than the International Space Station, and all astronauts are carefully screened for health issues before they're allowed to leave Earth. The ISS even has an escape capsule standing by in the event of a medical emergency. Of course, in deep space, such an escape route won't necessarily be an option. If NASA is to truly succeed on plotting out human missions to Mars and beyond, it needs to address the lack of immediate surgical care; the chances of an astronaut experiencing serious physical trauma grow significantly higher the further they get from earth. 

Sending a human physician up to perform such procedures is, at the current juncture, out of the question. Surgery in space would be next to impossible, even for a skilled doctor - without gravity, bodily fluids like blood would float free, contaminating the cabin. Not only that, capsules only carry a certain amount of weight - they might not be able to accommodate all the necessary surgical tools. 

"Everything that we take for granted, even something as simple as putting a Band Aid down on a table, is difficult in space," explained Dmitry Oleynikov at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. "That difficulty increases logarithmically when you're trying to do complex procedures such as an operation." 

The robot NASA and Virtual Incision have developed suffers from none of these difficulties. It's incredibly lightweight (it weighs about 0.9 lb), and about the size of a human fist. Its arms are fitted with an array of tools designed to hold, cauterise, and suture tissue, while embedded in the head is a small video camera. At some point in the next few months, it'll go through its first zero-gravity test in order to demonstrate its dexterity and ability to manipulate objects. 

Before that point, however, it'll need to demonstrate it's capable of operating on humans. The team behind the robot have already successfully performed several procedures on pigs; their next step is a human cadaver, and finally, a living human. Only at that point will this invention be deemd safe to use. 

Unfortunately, a fully-automated robotic surgeon is still some years away from being a workable concept. Instead, NASA hopes to train astronauts in how to use the device to perform procedures on one another. That said, automating the system certainly isn't out of the question - indeed, I'd imagine such a technology would naturally progress from Virtual Incision's design. 

For now, though? Assuming this project passes through the testing phase, life for spacebound astronauts just got a whole lot safer.